April 28, 2022
What are some of the tensions between short-term and long-term thinking about how best to reduce animal suffering? Why spend time and energy working on animal welfare when human welfare hasn't even been secured? Why do so many animal rights activists and organizations have such negative reputations and elicit such strongly negative emotional reactions from the population at large when they're just trying to reduce suffering? How does animal rights activism from an effective altruism perspective intersect with the more traditional forms of animal rights activism and social justice activism? Humans tend to be more capable of empathizing (for example) with a cow than with a fish, and more with a dog than with a cow; so how can animal rights activists motivate people in a way that works with or around human cognitive and emotional biases? What are some tools for dealing with chronic pain?
Leah has been involved in the effective altruism community for a decade and in animal advocacy her whole life. She has 7 years of professional experience in farmed animal advocacy, primarily focused on movement growth and interfacing with funders. Most recently, she worked at Animal Charity Evaluators on the Communications team and then as Executive Director. Her previous work experience includes performing in the Zurich Opera, managing a small business, and founding and leading ProVeg International's China Program. She currently works as a freelance philanthropic advisor to high-net-worth individuals entering the farmed animal space. You can email Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org or find out more about her on her LinkedIn profile.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Leah Edgerton about animal ethics, cognitive biases surrounding animal welfare, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in animal rights advocacy. Before we start, I wanted to let you know that this recording was made while Leah was working at Animal Charity Evaluators though she now works as a freelance philanthropic advisor. So some of her comments may make better sense if you keep that context in mind. And now, here's the conversation between Leah and Spencer.
SPENCER: Leah, welcome!
LEAH: Thanks for having me. Good to see you, Spencer.
SPENCER: One of the topics I really wanted to talk with you about is how we use reason and evidence to get to the bottom of really thorny, complex questions. I think you have an especially unique perspective on this as the Executive Director of Animal Charity Evaluators because you essentially have to try to sort through all the different complicated reasoning and evidence on questions around how to help animals and somehow try to get to the bottom of that, which I know is really difficult. I'd love to hear your perspective on this.
LEAH: Thanks for asking. At ACE or Animal Charity Evaluators, we use evidence and reason to find the most effective ways to help animals. We try to encapsulate a broad range of philosophical views. This might include people who are working towards animal rights. This might include people who are trying to incorporate animal welfare. The difference between those would be whether it's acceptable for humans to have a say in how animals are treated. The difference between an animal welfare or an animal rights approach would be whether we're working to enable animals to have the most freedoms to do things, whereas animal welfare would be more of a protectivist approach to trying to reduce the harm the animals face. In our work, we try to be encompassing of a broad variety of political views including both of those and we do research to prioritize which types of animals we can help the most effectively with our time and money. Because farmed animals (or animals that we eat for food) are the highest number of animals raised and killed by humans every year and we also know of really great ways to help them and they are currently not being helped as much as we think they could be, a lot of our work focuses on farmed animal advocacy. As you can imagine, improving the welfare of farmed animals or reducing global meat consumption are really, really complex questions. They relate to people's very personal decisions and their family lives day to day. They relate to political questions, to economic questions. They tie in international politics with economics, with all sorts of other social issues, trade, philosophical differences. We end up working with people from all sides of different political spectrums. I think this is a topic that tends to, when approached thoroughly and when approached thoughtfully, lands you in the middle of a lot of really tough questions. In addition to it being, I think, a very very complex topic, it's also a relatively new research space. In contrast to something like global health and development, there's relatively little evidence available to inform people's decisions. So it's a particularly difficult place to be using evidence and reason to be thinking about the most effective ways to help animals but that is what we try to do.
SPENCER: I feel like you're in the middle of so many difficult things. Because on the one hand, there's a whole huge group of people that says, "Animals? Why would you work on helping animals? Humans are suffering around the world." You get the blowback that any animal organization would get. On the other hand, you're at the center of this question of how we think about helping animals. Do we take this more interventionist approach or do we take this more hands-off approach? Then we also have this divide between effective altruist way of viewing the world, where you're trying to maximize the total utility of animals and really optimize, try to really be hard-nosed about making rigorous arguments and evidence versus a more traditional animal rights approach that just comes from a very different philosophical perspective.
LEAH: Exactly. At least in my work — and I think many of my colleagues would say they feel the same way — we try to not be tempted by the simplicity of looking for black and white answers and rejecting completely one framework or completely taking on another. When we're trying to use evidence and reason, we are generally trying to think of the question of how we can use our time and money in order to help animals as effectively as possible? I think in that sense, that is very much in line with the effective altruism framework. There's a lot of questions about what timeline we're considering. Are we talking about animals this year, animals in ten years, or animals in 1000 years? And these can give you very different answers. That's when we start to use other methodologies between just cost-effectiveness. I think, ultimately, we are working towards a most cost-effective way to help animals but recognizing that optimizing for that on a one- or five-year timeline can have really negative returns in terms of how that might play out on a ten-, 20-, or 100-year timeline.
SPENCER: Could you elaborate on that, where's the tension between focusing on the shorter time horizon versus longer?
LEAH: One pretty clear example would be if you look at some of the common interventions that are used in our space to help animals. Some of the charities that we work with take on work with very short time horizons. That might be something like influencing corporations to improve their conditions for egg-laying hens or chickens raised and killed for meat. Those timelines, we're looking at the animals living on the farms being affected in the five- to ten-year time range, which is pretty short. When we have interventions, we know that corporate campaigns and corporate outreach can successfully get companies to commit to these improvements and generally carry them out within those timelines. That's an intervention where we have pretty high certainty that we can achieve the desired outcome. But the desired outcome is only a very small change in the welfare for the animal. It might be an animal going from living in a cage the size of a piece of printer paper to a system where there's maybe no cages but still very crowded and not very good conditions. We are fairly certain that we can achieve those types of outcomes but the improvement for the chicken might be very small. Then on the other hand, we're working with charities who are working on either improving the legal protection of animals. For example, some organizations are trying to establish legal personhood for animals, which may take a very long time to achieve, may never happen and it's uncertain what would happen if their campaign was successful. But that's something that we think would have a more transformational approach about how our society sees animals and how animals are treated within human systems. Then there are other organizations working on direct anti-speciesism advocacy. That would be advocacy that's trying to help people understand that animals should be treated with the same moral interests as humans for the same types of interests that they have. There's a whole variety of different types of interventions. Those are some of the different ways where you can see that the timeline might be very long for something like trying to achieve legal personhood for animals or trying to instill anti-speciesist values in a society, compared to a five- or ten-year horizon where we can make a small improvement in the well-being of chickens currently living on farms.
SPENCER: Because you have so many different stakeholders, and so many different perspectives that you have to respond to, I just want to go through some of them and see what you would say to these different groups. The first one is, what would you say to people who think to themselves, "Animal rights, why would we focus on that? There's so many different problems that are affecting humans in the world. It just seems like animals shouldn't be as high on the totem pole of concern."
LEAH: We don't specifically try to have any messaging around how much of your funds should go towards helping animals versus helping people. We absolutely think that helping reduce human suffering is a really important thing to do in the world as well. But I think there is also a scientific consensus that animals — at least vertebrates — are conscious and can feel pain and have a sense of self and can suffer. I think when you consider that, as well as the massive scale of animal suffering happening in the world, whether that's in factory farms, in labs, or in zoos, I think there's a strong moral imperative to address animal suffering as well. The other thing I would say to the people with that question would be that animal suffering is often very tied to human suffering, in the sense that factory farming (which affects millions of animals negatively every year) also has negative impacts on humans. It's related to climate change. It's related to other environmental pollution. It's also related to social problems. Often people working in animal farms or in slaughterhouses are working in very bad conditions. They also affect environmental racism and things like this. So while animal suffering is in itself an important issue, it's also impossible to separate from some of the more important issues faced by humans as well.
SPENCER: Now, I think another response that people have is, "Okay. I get the idea. We don't want animals to suffer. I don't like the idea of an animal being trapped in a box its entire life. But the animal movement is a huge turn-off." People often think about PETA or they just have a negative feeling about animal rights or animal activism. What would you say to people with that kind of thinking?
LEAH: I can certainly understand that not everyone might see themselves in the animal movement. I certainly didn't work in the movement professionally until I got involved with the more effective altruism side of the animal movement. I've been very passionate for animal advocacy my whole life. I didn't really see myself working somewhere like PETA, or working on campaigns or protests or things like that. That's just not really within my personality. I think it's important to understand that you don't have to be best friends with everyone out doing street campaigns. It's a moral question. It's a philosophical question. I'm not a philosopher myself so I don't want to go too far in this direction. But there is a scientific consensus that animals can suffer and there's many brilliant philosophers who have done a lot of thinking on this topic including Peter Singer, who has talked about the moral importance of addressing animal suffering, especially on the scale that it is occurring in our world.
SPENCER: I think when people think about animal rights movements, they tend to have a very different impression than the way you look at these problems because, often, I think a lot of animal rights stuff is born out of this high level of empathy for animals which I'm sure that you share and I also share. Nobody wants to see an animal suffering. But I think that you come at this problem in a different way, where, rather than saying, "These animals are suffering. Let me react to the emotion I'm experiencing," you're trying to actually say, "If we think about all the different approaches we can take to improving animal lives and we force ranked them against each other, which are the ones that seem to alleviate the most suffering per dollar?" Is that a fair characterization of how you're trying to think about this?
LEAH: Sort of. I certainly meet, through my job, people who maybe don't feel a personal connection to animals but understand the philosophical and moral implications of animal suffering and want to support animal advocacy for that reason, and of course, are then looking for cost-effective ways to do so. But I think, for myself personally and for many other people I've met working in this space, it's not that we don't care about the individual animals' well-being. It's that maybe we care about the individual animals' well-being so much that it becomes...You need the tools of evidence and reason and scientific method to think about how to approach this in a scientific way. I think, for me personally, the reason that I find the effective altruism framework (of using evidence and reason to think about how to approach doing the most good for animals), I find that personally useful because the individual lives of animals are so important to me, and I'm someone who's very moved by animal suffering on an emotional level. I find this methodology and this approach enables me to take actions that truly address the problem without being blinded or overwhelmed by the emotional component of the very real and severe suffering going on. I find that, as someone who really cares about individual animals' well-being, these methodologies and these frameworks can help me address the well-being of as many individual animals as possible with the resources that I have.
SPENCER: What is the danger of looking at things from a more emotional lens? You have great empathy for animals. But as you're saying, these tools coming from effective altruism or this way of looking at the problem, you think, has benefits. What is the drawback of letting your emotions guide you more?
LEAH: I wouldn't really necessarily say the drawback (but of course) that you run into cognitive biases. There's a lot of evidence that say that people react with more empathy to a fundraising campaign that has one child in the ad versus one that has two children. I think humans are relatively insensitive to the scope of suffering. It's just hard for us to emotionally relate differently to the suffering of (say) 100 animals or 100 billion animals. Our brains aren't really built to handle those numbers and to be able to treat each one of those individuals as mattering as much as another one. That's why I think these frameworks can be more helpful. Then also in terms of, as someone who works in this space full-time, for my own sustainability, I find it helpful to approach these problems as puzzles to solve or to approach them on more of a literal level, rather than to think everyday about the suffering of every single animal in a factory farm. If I were to spend all day every day looking at factory farm footage, I would probably not be able to think very clearly about what would be the best way to help improve the lot of animals in this society. For example, I think it would make it harder for me to be able to have a civil conversation with someone who eats meat or someone who views the thing differently than me. I don't really want to traumatize myself by looking at the scale of suffering through that lens every day.
SPENCER: So, using these tools, it can help you avoid some cognitive biases but also it can help shield you from the intense emotional impact that might actually be debilitating or prevent you from operating effectively. Is that right?
LEAH: Yeah. I would say that's a common observable pattern through a lot of social movements that I've been involved with or observed. Of course, I think it's important to understand the scope of the problem and to understand the emotional impact on those that are suffering. But I think there's also a point at which traumatizing ourselves can make us worse advocates and can harm our own mental health in ways that make our movements less effective over time.
SPENCER: It's interesting you say that because my sense is that many more people working in animal rights experience extreme emotional distress around it than people working in poverty. This is just my anecdotal observation. I don't have any study to back this up. People working in global health and poverty, they also are dealing with really sad situations that could be heart-wrenching. Yet, it seems like they're experiencing less trauma from it. Do you agree with this at all?
LEAH: I haven't worked in an organization addressing global poverty, for example, so I'm speaking only from my perspective over here, but I do share your perspective. I think that probably comes from the fact that society views these issues differently. I think there are very few people in the world who would disagree that addressing poverty is an important thing or that people who are experiencing poverty matter. I think that's something that, pretty much in all political spectrums all around the world, people would agree on. Whereas in animal advocacy, you might see something really horrific going on, and then walk around and at least 95% of the people you meet are eating animals, or think it's okay to eat animals, or share wildly different views to you. So I think it's also harder to remain sustainable and to not feel frustrated when, not only is the scale of the problem very large, but the recognition of the severity of it and the society at large is very low.
SPENCER: It's an interesting point because if you're working on global poverty and you tell people about the horrendous conditions, pretty much everyone's going to be like, "That's awful. That's really great that you're working on that." Whereas, if you're an animal advocate and you're telling people about how terribly treated the animals that other people eat every day are, you'll be ridiculed often. People will dismiss you. People will get angry at you. If you really take this mindset seriously, essentially it's like, imagine there was a factory in your city where they were just murdering people and you were going around being like, "Look, they're murdering people in that factory," and everyone just gets angry at you and ridicules you. There's something extremely upsetting about that. I think to many animal advocates, that is what they feel. They essentially feel like there are these murder factories, and nobody seems to care very much.
LEAH: I would say that's true. I especially notice that when I talk to people in my field who do undercover investigations. These are people who either sneak into factory farms and take pictures, or they get a job as a farm worker and take pictures or record videos while they're working. For those people that I've talked to, first of all, it seems like all of them really really suffer a great amount due to the burdens of this job. But when I've asked them what specifically about it is so hard for them, they said, of course, it's hard to see the animals suffering in the farms. But what's harder is when they leave the farms and they realize that the rest of society views them as criminals and, in a lot of cases, felons. There's a lot of laws against taking pictures or videos of factory farms and making that footage available. They said that the hardest part is not necessarily the animal suffering itself, but the fact that they come out and nobody understands what they've seen or takes it seriously.
SPENCER: It's really an interesting point. I enjoy visiting farms. I've visited some farms. Unfortunately, I think something that happens is there's an extreme selection bias, where the farms that are like,"Yeah, come visit us," are completely different than your typical farm. Those are not the farms that produce almost any of the food that people actually consume. I'm wondering, could you give us a sense of what is it really like on a typical farm in the United States that people actually are getting their food from?
LEAH: Sure. I'll do my best. I'm not an investigator myself but basically, animals are forced to breed in various ways that we would view as completely unacceptable ways to treat humans. They're forcefully inseminated, or tied down to receive a semen from the male animal and forced to gestate. In the case of pigs for example, they may be confined to a cage where they're not able to move at all while they're gestating. They can develop sores and of course, it's very, very painful. They're very, very close together and it's very loud and very smelly. Then the babies will be born. In the case of cows, of course, the babies will be taken away immediately from the mothers. Both the babies and the mothers suffer a great deal. In particular, cows are very well known for the strong mother-child bond so that's a great deal of suffering for them. I won't go into detail about all of the horrific practices that there are. There's a lot of information on the internet about that. But in general, animals are kept together in very tight conditions.They generally never get to go outside. They're often given antibiotics in order to prevent them from getting sick or dying because the conditions that they're living in are so filthy. The animals are either bred to grow very, very quickly, or given growth hormones to grow very, very quickly. And they're usually slaughtered while they're still technically children, so before their reproductive maturity. Their lives tend to be very short, full of a lot of suffering, and usually end in a very painful death. Again, don't quote me on these statistics, please look them up yourself. But well over (say) 90% or 95% of the meat served at least in North America and Western Europe comes from conditions like these. So unless you're specifically going to an organic farm or specifically going to a butcher that you know sources meat from somewhere else and it's probably likely to be much more expensive, you can be quite certain that the meat you're getting in any restaurant or any supermarket comes from conditions like those.
SPENCER: I ran a survey asking people in the US their thoughts about the suffering of animals, farming of animals, and so on. What I was interested in examining is this tension: It seems like lots of people don't want animals to suffer. If you ask them, they'll be like, "Of course, I don't want animals to suffer." Yet people buy animal products. So I'm just curious about that dissonance, that disconnect between those two things. So in this survey, I asked people, "Do you think it's bad for animals to suffer?" The vast majority of them said yes. Ok. "Do you think it's bad to make farm animals suffer?" The vast majority of them again said yes. OK. "Do you think that animals often suffer on factory farms?" "Yes, animals often suffer in factory farms." Where is this gonna break? How are people going to resolve this dissonance? Where it started to turn around was a question like, "Do you believe that the animals suffered, that you actually ended up buying the products from? The products you bought, do you think that those animals were suffering?" A lot of people said, "No, they didn't." They thought that those animals were well-treated. So what I started to think is that that's the way that a lot of people resolve their dissonance. They don't want animals to suffer. They don't want farmed animals to suffer. They do think that farm animals often suffer, but somehow they think that the animal products they're buying are from better farms that are not mistreating the animals and so that's okay. I'm just curious to hear your reaction to that.
LEAH: Yeah. I agree that the research seems to point that most people do care about animals. Most people don't want animals to suffer. Yet most people do purchase and consume animal products for food. Of course, there's cognitive biases going on there that, at some point, they have to tell themselves that they're not responsible for the situation. But what I would say is what I mentioned earlier about the lives that these animals lead. Of course, there are instances of direct abuse where farm workers occasionally beat an animal or do something that is illegal in modern farming practices and really do something that is (on purpose) cruel that is not part of what's necessary to raise and kill these animals for food. But I would challenge people to think about the fact that all the suffering that I described earlier is not random cases where one farm worker goes rogue. These are built into how these animals are raised and killed. There is no exception in a farm like that, how the animals are bred, how long they live, how they're slaughtered. Those are standard farming practices. I think most people would view those as unacceptable. We're not just talking about random cases of breakout cruelty or breakout abuse. That's the message that I think is really important for people to hear.
SPENCER: The other day, I happened to be talking to someone who has spent a lot of her life on a dairy farm. I was just asking her some questions about this, about how she thinks about the well-being of animals. And she was arguing that actually, the dairy cows lived quite good lives. They have outdoor access. They get to choose what other cows they hang out with. So one thing I want to ask you about that is, do you think that she's probably misleading herself in some way? Or would you say that there's actually just extreme differences in the ways that different animals are raised?
LEAH: I think there are extreme differences. In the case of a dairy farm, I would maybe ask her what happens to the baby cows. They must be separated from their mothers in order for the milk to be consumed by humans. Usually those babies are either — if they're female — may turn into dairy cows themselves or they're killed at a young age and consumed for veal. Again, even if you might be treating those cows well, there's still this fundamental fact that cows produce milk for their children. I think there are vast differences in how animals are raised and killed. To be quite honest, I don't have the answers to what exactly is the optimal relationship that humans should have to animals. Is it okay for us to have animals living in our homes as companions? Is it okay for us to take care of animals in the wild that are suffering? Or should we have a very separate relationship between humans and non-human animals? Personally, I don't feel qualified to comment on that question. I also would say that, because of where we're starting at as a society with such institutionalized cruelty happening to animals and where we're growing up with such intense cognitive biases towards animals, I would doubt that any human alive today would be unbiased enough to be able to take that question seriously. So for my personal advocacy, I try to focus on the questions that really are clear and to me, factory farming is one of them, where basically nobody thinks this is okay and it's suffering on a massive scale. I think once we can start to undo some of these cognitive biases — and factory farming is, I think, a particularly important one because it relates to people's food choices every day. If people were to no longer be consuming animal products or at least factory farmed animal products every day, and people didn't have to justify their own behavior or rationalize their own behavior — then we could start to have more in-depth and more nuanced conversations about the optimal relationship between humans and animals and is it okay for humans to ever have animals in captivity or not.
SPENCER: Suppose that someone thinks, "I don't feel good about contributing to animal suffering. But realistically, I'm probably not going to stop eating all animal products," I want to think about this from an evidence-based perspective, the 80-20 solution where they can make some simple changes in their lifestyle that will have a disproportionately large impact even if they're not ready to give up animal products.
LEAH: These are just some of my personal views. I personally choose to follow the vegan lifestyle because of these moral questions. But I do know other people who, for example, feel comfortable consuming dairy products, not because they think the conditions on dairy farms are okay but because each individual cow can produce so much milk that the number of individual animals affected is much lower than if you were to eat fish or eat chickens. If you eat smaller animals, of course, to have the same amount of meat, you have to kill more individuals. There are some people who say eating larger animals is better. But then I also want to point out that that conflicts with a lot of climate advocacy recommendations that eating ruminants is much worse for the CO2 production. So there's a lot of trade-offs to think about. The other thing I would point out is that there's really a lot of quite excellent alternatives coming out. This really wasn't the case when I went vegan 15 years ago but there are really much more affordable and much tastier alternatives to most animal products and they're much more easily available. I would encourage people to at least try mixing those in as an option here and there and figuring out which recipes those work well with and which cases they don't. I think that there's a lot of in-between options. I certainly wouldn't want to tell someone that they can't take steps to improve the lives of animals, even if they're not ready to go vegan. I think there's a lot that people can do. I think it's not advisable as a movement for us to become one where people can only be involved (or accepted or have their opinions count) if they're vegan.
SPENCER: There's an article that Julia Galef wrote back in 2011 that has some interesting statistics on the number of calories per life for different animals. I'll just read a few numbers from that because I think it's quite instructive. A chicken, according to these figures, produces about 3000 calories per life, whereas a dairy cow is about 17 million calories per life. If you think about that, if you're eating the same number of calories of chicken meat versus milk, that's a huge ratio in terms of how your actions lead to the deaths of many, many more chickens than dairy cows. So that's one way of looking at it. As you point out, maybe from an environmental perspective, the analysis is different. I haven't seen good figures on analyzing each animal product. But my opinion (which is definitely less informed than yours) on this is that reducing chicken consumption could be a good low-hanging fruit way to cause less suffering. I'm curious if you agree with that.
LEAH: I think chicken and fish both...I mean, fish, of course some of them can be quite small animals like sardines (or even salmon) are not as large as cows. But the other thing that makes fish especially so high — that makes it especially negative for animals — is that most of the fish we eat are themselves carnivores so they're fed feeder fish. So if you're eating a salmon, that salmon in a farm would have been eating many, many smaller fish over the course of its life to gain the weight to be slaughtered to be eaten by humans. So there's a lot of fish lives that go into producing one fish for human consumption.
SPENCER: The question about fish is interesting. Because I feel, as much difficulty as some people have connecting with the cause of animal welfare, I feel like they find it even more difficult to connect with fish welfare in particular. Do you have any thoughts on that?
LEAH: That does seem to be the case. Actually from my own personal experience, it was backwards. Fish was actually the first animal product that I stopped eating. I have a fun little anecdote that I could share if it's interesting about how I got to that decision.
SPENCER: Yeah, please.
LEAH: When I was growing up, I lived in a small village in Switzerland. I had, at home, some guppies living in a fish tank. Those are little fish. They're quite colorful and they all look a little bit different. I had a book where I would draw them all, when I was maybe six or seven years old. I knew them all. They all had names. Sometimes they would breed and there would be babies, and then I'd name the new ones. So I had a very close relationship with these fish. I was very interested in their lives. One day, our village had a fishing competition. We had a little pond that they had stocked with trout, and everyone in the village was invited to come and fish. I was really, really excited because I was like, "This is so great. I love fish. This is going to be with all my friends and all my family. We're going to have a wonderful time." We got there. Everyone I knew was there: my teacher, my neighbors, my parents, and I was given a fishing pole. I put it into the pond. I was showed how to fish. I think there was maybe a worm at the end of it. At some point, I felt a tug. I pulled the fish in and I held it in my arms. I was like, "Look! I got a fish!" Really, really excited. Then my father gave me a stick and told me, "Now beat it to death." I was so shocked. For some reason, I did not know that fishing day meant a killing fish day. I thought that we were all gonna get together and admire some fish. Then I just remember looking around and seeing my teacher beating a fish to death and my neighbors beating a fish to death and my friends...the world going black, my vision got very, very narrowed. I think I just cried and went home and was very upset when my parents later ate the fish. That was the point where they told me, "Okay. You don't have to eat fish anymore." I haven't eaten fish since that day.
SPENCER: It's so interesting, because I think some people, they're gonna hear that story. They're gonna be like, "Wow. That must be so traumatizing." Imagine you flip it around. Imagine that you've got a pet dog and you love this dog. Then one day, your parents are like, "Oh, here's what we're having for dinner: Fluffy, your dog." If you put it in that mindset, that's so traumatizing. On the other hand, someone can be like, "Are you kidding me? Fish? Of course we eat fish. Why would you care about the fish?" I think it just depends so much on how we're socialized around these things.
LEAH: Definitely. There are parts of the world where it's totally normal for people to eat dogs. There are parts of the world where it is not at all normal to eat cows. It really depends on how you're socialized. For anyone who's particularly interested in fish, I recommend a cool book by Jonathan Balcombe called What a Fish Knows. Because obviously, we're land animals, fish are water animals. We don't really run into each other on a daily basis. So it's harder for us to know what their lives are like, what they're doing, what their personalities and their needs are. Fish also aren't a monolith. There are thousands of different species with completely different capabilities and experiences. There's a lot to learn there. There's a lot of fascinating information about the social lives, emotional lives of fish. There's a lot that we can learn, even if we don't get to run into them too often in our daily lives.
SPENCER: I think this is an interesting illustration of the idea that things that are different from us, we tend to treat very differently. There's some sense in which fish feel much more different from us than a dog. They just feel more alien so — speaking of biases humans have — first of all, it's harder to empathize with them or relate to them. Second of all, because they're so different from us, we lump them all together. Fish are just insanely diverse. It's an entire class of creatures. That's like saying, "Mammals are all the same." Yet our brains want to do that and say these things are all like each other.
LEAH: Definitely. I think there's a lot of understandable reasons why we've developed the relationship that we have with animals. But I think it's also a good time for us — especially living in a world in a time where there are great and healthy alternatives to eating animal products — to think about these moral questions now that we have the ability to do so and to be more deliberate about how we interact with other beings on this planet.
SPENCER: Another question one could ask about the different animals in factory farms is, which of their lives are particularly bad? Just wondering if you have a perspective on which of them are the more mistreated animals?
LEAH: I would guess that farmed fish have the lowest welfare of all farmed animals. I would guess that cows raised and killed for meat have the highest welfare. They generally live a lot of their lives outside grazing, and then they usually spend some amount of time towards the end of their lives in worse conditions and feedlots. Those are the two extremes. Chickens and fish probably have the worst lives. Maybe dairy cows, but certainly cows raised for meat seem to live better lives. The other suggestion I've heard, although I haven't really explored this much myself, but some people have recommended consuming animals that are not commonly consumed, like bison, or water buffalo, or ducks. Because they aren't generally factory farmed in the same way. We might not have the same problem where breeds are developed that are particularly low-welfare. They're probably not consumed at a high enough scale that there's a whole industrial system built around raising and killing them.
SPENCER: Where would you put egg-laying hens on that [inaudible] there?
LEAH: I would put them towards the bottom, similar to fish and chickens raised and killed for meat. There are some different trade-offs. Egg-laying hens live a lot longer than farmed fish or chickens raised and killed for meat because they're kept alive as long as they can keep producing eggs at a high enough rate, which is (I think) somewhere between one and a half and two years. Whereas chickens raised and killed for meat are usually killed at about 42 days.
SPENCER: Got it. So that actually pushes towards the heuristic of chickens produce a lot less calories per life. They also tend to be extremely mistreated on the spectrum of how mistreated animals are. So that's another (maybe) argument against eating chicken.
LEAH: Yeah. Spencer, since I know you have a lot of experience developing rationality techniques and talking about how people can become more aware of their cognitive biases, I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about the cognitive biases that might be at play when we're talking about how humans think about animal suffering?
SPENCER: Sure. I think that there's quite a few things going on. It is plausible that someone just doesn't care about animals. Someone could not care about humans as well. If someone says to you, "I actually don't care about what happens to humans," it's hard to say that they're making a logical mistake. That person might be a bad person. You might not want to associate with that person. You might be nervous about what that might lead to in terms of their behavior. But it's hard to say they're making a logical mistake. But I think that that's not the situation we're in for most people. I think that the vast majority of humans do care about the well-being of other humans. Also, I think the vast majority of humans do care about the well-being of animals. I think we can see this if we just look at people's behavior (let's say) around a dog that's being kicked. If you're walking on the street, you see someone kicking their dog. I think the vast majority of people will be like, "There's something wrong with that. That's not right." You might even feel an impulse to try to stop that person, even though you're not going to directly benefit by trying to stop that person. It just feels immoral, what they're doing, because we're in that situation where the vast majority of people have some sense that we shouldn't mistreat animals. Then you can start talking about, "Well, are there systematic biases that are actually causing us to not see the situation as it really is?" We've talked about one of those, which is the difficulty of empathizing with certain animals. There's this insanely accurate, simple heuristic about human morality which is, the more different from us something looks, the less likely we are to treat it fairly or view it as a moral agent. It's insane how accurate this is, as a model of a lot of human morality. For example, most people, they empathize the most with themselves. They care most about how they're treated. The being that's most like you is yourself. Then who do people care about the next most? Well, it's often their family, which also looks extremely like them. Then after that, it's probably their friends who often also look quite like them. Then after that, maybe their neighbors, and after that, maybe people in their country. Then after that, maybe people of nearby countries and so on. You go down the chain until eventually you get to mammals. Then you get to things like birds, and you'd have things like fish, and then finally insects. So I think that one of the biases we have is that we just tend to evaluate things based on the way they look and based on how similar they are to us, that this is actually an extreme bias we have towards the way we treat others morally.
LEAH: I think there's even some further evidence that, besides animals just being different from us, there have been a few studies around human perceptions of animals that we eat. The research seems to point towards it. When people hear or learn that an animal is edible, they view that animal as having lower moral status, being less capable of suffering, and just being less worthy of protection. I think there's also a layer that's going on that has to do with the fact that, because most people are consuming animal products, and they were raised to consume animal products, there's an additional layer of bias to trying to rationalize our own behavior. I think that most people would be grateful to live in a society where they don't need to rationalize these choices all the time, and where there's a food system in place that they can easily use and live rich and full lives with delicious food and all the family traditions that go with it, but that doesn't go against their basic morals about animal suffering.
SPENCER: There's this really interesting thing that I've seen happen quite a few times where a young child cares a lot about animals. Oftentimes, children love animals. They read a lot of books about animals, and so on. This is similar to your story. Then at some point, there's this moment of realization that they're being fed animals. They have this moment of extreme dissonance. I remember this happened to one of my family members. They loved fish sticks; it was one of their favorite foods. I remember one day, they learned that their sticks are fish. They never had put it together. It sounds silly but they're a little child. They're like, "Wait, I'm eating fish? This doesn't look like fish." It was very upsetting. Then there's this extreme dissonance that occurs like, "What? I love these things. Why would I eat them? That doesn't make any sense." Then very often, what happens is the parents (with people around) are like, "No, it's fine. It's all good. Don't worry. This is normal." Then the kid gets over it and stops ever thinking about it again. I think a lot of this is social. Imagine that instead, the parents freak out like, "You ate fish. Oh, my gosh! Fish are living beings that can suffer." That would be just completely 180 in terms of how people would respond to all this stuff. I think it's a reasonable approximation to say that humans can almost never believe that they're actively constantly engaging in immoral actions. They need to find some way to deal with that dissonance. If you take that as approximately true, that we can't believe that we're constantly engaging in immoral actions, that implies that on a psychological level, we have to find some way to be okay with what we're doing or we would just stop doing the thing. Occasionally, people do stop doing the thing. They'll stop eating meat, or stop buying animal products. But more often, they find a way to think about it that makes them feel okay. I've seen so many smart people say interesting things about why they eat animals that I feel like they wouldn't use these arguments in a lot of other situations. But there's something about the need to feel okay with it immediately. Here's some examples of things I've heard people say. "Oh, well, the animal would eat me. So I'm going to eat it." And I'm like, "Hmm, interesting. You think a cow or chicken would eat you? I don't know about that." Or, "Well, the animal's already dead. So I'm not really doing anything." It's like, "So you don't think that by buying animal products throughout your life, you increase the number of animals produced?" I've just heard so many things that don't really stand up to scrutiny, just even a moment of thinking about it. My personal view on these kinds of things is that there are many approaches you could have in your life to try to make the world better. So if someone is working on trying to help the world in a particular way, I get that people have limited resources, mentally and cognitively and so on. So personally, I try not to be judgmental if people are trying to help the world one way and other people say they're failing in another way. But I do think it's really interesting how most people seem to be unable to both simultaneously believe that it's really wrong to hurt animals and also to hurt them and that leads to this immediate reaction where you try to justify the behavior.
LEAH: I think an important part of effective advocacy is to start from the point of commonality that, not nobody, but most people don't want animals to suffer in the way that they're suffering. There's an old Aziz Ansari comedy about chickens being raised for eggs and he just says, "Nobody would check yes, if your choice was, do you want animals to be bred in tiny cages and then the male chicks get ground up alive after a few hours of age and they're pumped full of hormones. Nobody would check yes." It was never one person's idea to implement this system. It just arose through a series of very complex, economical dynamics. I think most people would prefer that we find a way to live that doesn't require us to have all these rationalizations and cognitive biases to overcome which, to most people, is a pretty fundamental moral value.
SPENCER: It's really interesting to imagine some future world where the default is that you have access to all these delicious products that taste just like meat but were not made using animals. Or were made using animals a really long time ago, and now we don't eat animals anymore. It was cultured meat. So people are born into this world, and then they have to choose, do you go eat the animal products of animals bred in factory farms, which is not the default, which is a fringe thing to do? Or do you just keep eating the equally delicious ones that don't involve an animal suffering? It just feels like virtually everyone is going to choose the no animal suffering one. If that's the default, if that's normal, if they taste just as good, if they're just as cheap, why would you ever go eat the ones from factory farms? But we grew up in a world that's the reverse of that, where the normal thing, the cheapest thing, the most convenient thing, the one our friends and family do and so on, is the one that involves animal suffering. It's a sad state of affairs where people are thrust into this moral situation where all the forces are pushing them to do this thing that actually involves creating more suffering.
LEAH: It's a pretty interesting time to be alive. I live in Berlin which is a very vegan-friendly, and very animal-friendly city. My supermarket around the corner does have great cheap alternatives to animal products also made often by the same producers as the animal products, and usually advertised for the same price at the same shop, so we're getting there. Whenever I travel, I like to just take an assessment of what's the status of vegan revolution in this town. I've been visiting the supermarkets. There's also a really fun film I wanted to mention. It's produced by the BBC by a director named Simon Amstell. It's called Carnage. It's a pretty fun thought experiment. It's filmed starting in 2067 which they say is after the vegan revolution. They have these kids who are alive, and they're all pan racial, pan sexual, a play on how we see millennials and Gen Z going in a different direction from older adults alive now. Then they learn that their grandparents used to eat meat and they fell out with them. Then it goes back in time. It's a mockumentary about how we got from where we are today to the vegan revolution and it actually starts in 1945, which is when the UK Vegan Society was founded. All of the events that go through 2016 (when the film was made) are true events. They take true advertisements and true interviews with vegans and with meat-eaters. It's pretty funny, and it shows a really, really good perspective on how we're going to look back on these wild values very differently, and what types of changes and what might society go through in order to get to that point. It's also very funny. It's the only vegan activist film I know that is truly funny.
SPENCER: It is really amazing the progress we're seeing. Now I live in Manhattan, and you go to restaurants and there's a 50% chance that they either have an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger. Ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's amazing how common they're getting. They taste really good. They're probably a bit more expensive than normal burgers still at this point. But the prices keep coming down. One of the really interesting things about Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger is that they're technologies. Over time, they get the benefit of economies of scale and enhanced technology that makes them taste even better, makes them cheaper to produce, makes them more and more similar to the taste of animal products. Whereas regular animal production has been very far out on that technology curve where, if it's improving in any of these dimensions — taste, cheapness, health — it's quite slow. Whereas, Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger, they're just on this really fast exponential curve. Then even more so for things like lab-grown animal products. You start with the animal cells and you try to produce actual meat without involving animals in the process, except for that initial sampling of the cells. They're not available for purchase really, but as far as I can tell, that technology is just going really, really fast on this exponential curve. You have any thoughts you want to share about those?
LEAH: Yeah. Last summer, I actually tried the first (I think) cellular agriculture product that I've ever had, which was Perfect Day ice cream. I was able to buy it in San Francisco in an ice cream shop. It's made using casein which is the protein they developed in a lab. It tasted very, very different from any vegan ice cream I've ever had. It was very delicious and creamy. I definitely recommend it. I think there's a perception that animal-free diets can be restrictive. Maybe you're just eating vegetables or tofu or something like that. But as you mentioned, with things like lab-grown meat, once you start designing the fat and protein and fiber content of a meat, there's actually a lot more variables to play with. We could be making food that is even tastier, that has really different properties. For me, there's going to be a lot more options that we might look at one day and see that the meat that you can get from animals is just limiting in terms of flavor profiles that you're looking for, or the environmental properties that you're looking for, or otherwise for health.
SPENCER: Yeah. They tune the nutritional content. It's a really interesting point. One day, we might get to a point where the lab-grown meat or the plant-based meat is tastier, healthier, cheaper. Then what's gonna happen to the meat market? I would predict in that case that meat would really be majorly on the decline. We'll end up with a really different world. If it's really truly in your own personal incentive, like products are not made with any suffering — in other words, even if you're completely selfish, you're better off choosing the plant-based or the clean meat products — I think the world is going to rapidly shift.
LEAH: I sure hope so.
SPENCER: Another topic related to all of this that I just wanted to ask you about a little bit is, any tension you see between this effective altruist way of trying to solve problems in the world and other perspectives from (let's say) social justice? I think this is particularly interesting in the animal space. It's such an intersection between these ways of viewing things. There are these two very different perspectives on how to make the world better and I'm wondering how you navigate that. I imagine you probably face pretty intense pressures on both sides, from effective altruists, and also from social justice advocates who both really care about your work and how you're doing it.
LEAH: Definitely. Certainly, we see that in the animal advocacy, and especially at ACE where I work which is at the intersection of the effective altruist community and the animal advocacy community. But I also think this reflects a broader political and social trend that I see certainly in North America and in Europe where I live. I think we're definitely feeling those effects here. But I think it's not unique to our space. Certainly, we do feel a lot of pressure from all sides to take on one framework completely, or reject another framework completely. We try to just be comfortable with sitting in the gray area in the middle and recognizing that truth-seeking can be done in many different ways and that there's pros and cons to different approaches to truth-seeking. So when we talk about some of the core tensions that we feel between those communities, especially around issues — I would say the two hot button issues are something around free speech and open discourse, on the one hand, and between representation, equity and inclusion, or what people might negatively refer to as PC culture or cancel culture —I think we try to, like I mentioned, not be pressured into taking one extreme view or another. But to understand that for truth-seeking, we both do need open discourse and the space to explore ideas and the space to question the status quo. We also need to have everyone whose opinions matter about this at the table. So we don't want to be excluding people who have really valuable perspectives, especially when you're talking about animal suffering, that it affects people in every single country, it affects people from every socioeconomic class, people who identify with different races, with different genders. Issues that you can separate or address in one office or one little lab in some part of the world really require solutions that affect people on every different level of the personal, and the political, and the cultural. Those are some of the main tensions that we feel. I would say I've personally experienced a lot of pressure and, in some cases, quite negative attacks from people on both sides of that spectrum who have felt critical about how we've approached balancing those issues. I think it's really important that we keep thinking critically about the feedback that we're getting from all different sides. But also, as I mentioned, I don't want to be tempted by the simplicity of fully taking on one view and rejecting another when I think they both bring really important aspects to think about when you're pursuing truth-seeking work.
SPENCER: What's a concrete example where the two sides don't see eye to eye and are pushing in different directions?
LEAH: One of the examples would be the extent to which we consider representation, equity, and inclusion in our charity evaluations or in our grant-making decisions. We think that in order for a charity to be effective, they need to be pursuing effective programs and pursuing interventions that are shown by evidence, or that we think reasonably are expected to create a high impact for animals. But we also want to invest in organizations that are good for the long-term development of the movement. Now, as we mentioned, the state of animal suffering is really starting at a very wide, wide scale. This is not a problem that's likely to get solved in the next ten years, or even 100 years. We want to invest in a movement that can be effective over the long term. We think that means things like developing good organizational culture, reducing turnover in the movement, and just generally instilling good norms in the movement, whether that's things like open science or impact assessment or incorporating representation, equity and inclusion in our work. So we want to not be actively discriminating against people in our community who care about animals and want to use their time and their resources to help them.
SPENCER: What would you say the steel man arguments are on each side of this diversity, equity and inclusion conversation?
LEAH: I would say, coming from the more free speech side of things, people are saying that all ideas should be open for discussion and we need to be able to have unpopular opinions. For example, that animal suffering is important that needs to be addressed, or that people should reduce animal consumption, that is an unpopular opinion in the mainstream discourse. We certainly embrace that opinion. I think there's a thought that we need to be able to think and talk critically about all sorts of different subjects in order to be able to identify without bias, effective ways to help animals. Then the other side that we hear coming more from those working closer with social justice communities would be that certain types of free speech exclude people from the conversation, whether directly by saying literally people can't come, or indirectly by making an environment so unpleasant that people don't want to enter it. For example, I'm a woman working in the animal advocacy space and I might not feel comfortable — or not even necessarily uncomfortable, but I might not want to spend my time and energy — working with a group of men who don't understand that my opinion counts as much, or who want to promote interventions that I think are sexist like having women walk around (say) naked or with bikinis on promoting "Go vegan." It's sexy or something like this, which are real interventions out there that people use to help animals. I think the issue here is that if literally everything is on the table, some people are going to bring ideas to the table that have sexist, or racist, or ableist, or whatever undertones. Then we end up with people with marginalized identities not wanting to participate in the conversation or being deliberately excluded from the conversation. Then we lose out on a lot of valuable insight, especially when a lot of those marginalized populations are extremely important stakeholders when you're talking about animal suffering. Since rural communities can be more affected by factory farming in the area or, for example, women often make food choices for their families more so than men. There's examples around why you might want a diverse set of stakeholders at the table when you're making decisions around the most effective ways to help animals. So that's the trade-off between how open is the discourse and what types of behavior do we accept from people who are allowed to participate in the conversation and how does that affect our ability to speak freely about all the important issues that there are and also include everyone who needs to be included in order for us to arrive at the most truthful outcome.
SPENCER: It seems to me that, on this topic in particular, almost nobody takes the extreme position. Almost nobody says that we should include people in the animal advocacy community, go around talking about how certain groups of people should be murdered based on their race or ethnicity. Nobody wants that to be acceptable speech. On the flip side, probably nobody's going around saying, "Nobody should be allowed to say anything that contradicts my opinion." Or, "Everyone should have to agree 100% on these talking points or we should kick them out of the community." Those two extreme positions are totally untenable. It seems like what is happening is we're debating over where we draw this line. On the one hand, people say, "We really want people to speak quite openly and to be able to say almost anything because even minor restrictions on what people talk about, might reduce people's ability to think clearly and avoid bias and get to the truth." On the other hand, people say, "Yeah, but people are feeling marginalized, and we're losing out on people who could be a part of this community and would be really valuable to include but they don't feel comfortable because of some of the things that people are saying." Is that a fair characterization?
LEAH: I would say that's fair. I think certainly nobody seems to take either extreme stance but people have a lot of different opinions around what's acceptable in terms of trade-offs and in those gray areas.
SPENCER: I think a critique that I've heard, and I'm curious to hear your reaction to it, is that if you take a group like Animal Charity Evaluators that has the stated mission of trying to help animals as much as possible, I think some people from the effective altruist point of view say, "Yes, it makes sense to talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, insofar as it helps with the mission, insofar as it leads to the organization being more effective at helping animals which is its mission. But it doesn't make sense to include these initiatives insofar as they're aiming at something else, insofar as they're aiming at other social goals because while that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it's just not the mission of Animal Charity Evaluators." In other words, there can be other organizations that have that mission. But it's mission creep, essentially that it's adding this other element on this, not the state of mission of the organization. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that.
LEAH: I definitely agree. Of course, we all hold our individual political or moral views on other social issues. We encourage or allow people to pursue those as they see fit in their free time outside of work. But of course, the scope of our work is restricted to the most effective ways to help animals. So for that reason, of course, we will never fund a children's literacy organization in India that had nothing to do with animals, even though we might all think that improving literacy of children in India is an important thing to do. But then on the other hand, we have seen issues — for example around sexual harassment — cause really, really drastic effectiveness issues within the animal advocacy movement. In 2017, which was around the same time that the broader societal Me Too discourse was happening, within animal advocacy, there were several leaders of animal advocacy organizations who had been exhibiting problematic and harmful behavior towards female colleagues. Those conflicts led to those organizations really having very serious problems like huge amounts of turnover, unable to carry out their programs, many advocates leaving the movement (according to them, forever) because of the negative experience. I think that's the other extreme. As we see, if we don't have any standards on these issues and how they affect the effectiveness of the animal advocacy community, we're going to run into a very unhealthy movement. And these types of issues can cause huge problems for the effectiveness of our movement over the longer term.
SPENCER: Got it. It sounds like, from your perspective, there are very real trade-offs here where, if we don't pay enough attention to some of these issues, it actually reduces the effectiveness. So even just taking the point of view of how you help animals the most (which I think is your goal), you still want to take into account some issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, making sure we're doing a good enough job that's not impairing effectiveness.
LEAH: Definitely. There is a little bit of research around this. Faunalytics, which is one of our standout charities, have done some research about activist turnover and burnout. Many people have experienced some sort of discrimination in their workplace. There's some evidence — I don't want to quote the exact numbers, but I recommend looking it up — that these problems are really quite pervasive especially for non-White advocates, advocates of the global majority in our space, and also for women, less so than I think it was before but still to an extent that it deserves some attention. We certainly don't want advocates to be leaving our space or unable to continue working in the movement to protect animals because of these external issues. At ACE, we don't view it as our mission to address these other issues directly but we certainly don't think it's an acceptable trade-off to cause great harm to these other important causes in order to help animals. We also think, of course, of those social issues. Insofar as we want our organizations to be effective, we want them to be able to hire and retain the best people to do the job. We don't want them to have this bias where they're unable to access large amounts of the talent pool because they're actively being discriminated against within the movement.
SPENCER: Right. That makes sense to me that there is a real fundamental trade-off there in terms of reducing efficacy, though I feel like there's still a lot of tension potentially between these worldviews. Something I've observed is that sometimes you see people make arguments about diversity, equity, inclusion issues because they care about it in their own right, and that's totally fine. As you point out, that's just not the mission of ACE. Other times, you see people make more effectiveness-minded arguments. But something that I think happens is that there's just this cultural difference where some people say, "We should have dual mandates. We should be focused on DEI issues for their own sake even within an animal rights organization or an animal charity. That can create a cultural tension, going from this idea of 'we have a single mandate' to this dual mandate. That just seems really difficult to navigate. Because people who care about these issues, I think, are going to often want to make them a second mandate at the organization.
LEAH: I think that's something that needs to be constantly managed. Again, to go back to the example used of the extremes, I think there's no one who would say that we want to recommend the most effective way to help animals even if that kills people. Of course, we all have a line around what we think is acceptable in terms of how to run an organization and what externalities our actions have, which might be along moral values that are separate from the mission of the organization to reduce animal suffering. As I mentioned, these values are intentions and I think that that's okay. I think they both bring useful and important frameworks to approach the question of how to help animals as effectively as possible. At least my approach as a leader in this space, and the person running an organization in this space, is to actively manage the balance and try to keep things from moving too far to one side or another. Keep the focus that, yes, ACE is an organization that exists to reduce animal suffering. But as I mentioned, these other social issues have an impact on our ability to reduce animal suffering. Of course, the society at large is having a conversation around how actively doing it to be pursuing other values, like anti-racism for example, to be just moral humans. One guideline for that could be just complying with law which, in a lot of the world, is maybe a good enough parameter that we shouldn't have sexual harassment, we shouldn't have bullying, we shouldn't have discrimination, we should pay our employees, we can't just fire them with no notice in a lot of different countries. So that can be some of the guidelines for basically how to run an organization in terms of ethical behavior. But I think — and especially when you're considering parts of the world where the laws might be different — there is some amount of responsibility for organizational leaders to make their own decisions around how much of a mandate they think they have to take these other issues seriously.
SPENCER: I wouldn't necessarily say that things like sexual harassment or mistreatment of employees is higher in the animal advocacy communities than it is elsewhere. These kinds of issues occur in many different industries. But on the other hand, it's not obvious to me that it's less in the animal advocacy community either which, insofar as that's true, is interesting. Because it seems like this is a movement that attracts really altruistic people that are trying to improve the world. So you might think, where's the empathy towards your employees? Where's your empathy around issues like sexual harassment? There is a surprise, I think, that I register when you have a group trying to improve the world, and then you find out that the person running it is harassing their employees or mistreating them and so on. I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts about that tension between the ethical mission, and yet some of these organizations (as I know you've uncovered as well) have engaged in unethical behavior that's not in the animal domain?
LEAH: I think it might be nice to think that caring about one social issue means that you're more likely to care about another, and maybe it does. But certainly, I've witnessed countless experiences where being really morally engaged in one area doesn't necessarily carry over to values in another area. I think that's just something we need to accept about human psychology. I've actually had somebody ask me the question before, who was in the vegan advocacy space and maybe had a little bit of an idealized view of how transformational values towards animals can be towards the rest of the world. They asked me, "Can you think of a single vegetarian whose caused a genocide? If we all were vegetarian, we all are compassionate towards animals, we would all naturally be compassionate towards other humans." But I don't know if this is jumping right into your head, but it certainly jumped right into mine that Hitler was a vegetarian, and he's probably the most famous genocide executor that we are aware of in Western culture. So I think it's not at all a guarantee that someone will have good morals in another area just because they care about animals.
SPENCER: It's so interesting because I think a lot of people have the intuition that there's a spectrum of goodness. Some people are better people in a moral sense and some people are worse. That certainly seems to be true to a degree. I can certainly think of people that I think are just terrible people. I think they act terrible in every dimension. Then there are people that I'm like, "That person would never hurt anyone. That person is good. You can always trust them." I wonder if part of what happens with this stuff is that rationalization thing, where humans are so good at rationalizing their behavior so you can get a situation where someone's not at either extreme; they're not pure evil, and they're not pure good. They're somewhere in the middle as most humans are and they really care about animals. But in these other domains, they find some way to rationalize their behavior and feel okay about it.
LEAH: I'm certainly not an expert on the research in this area, but it seems like values can come in clumps, and not necessarily be along a linear progression. When we talk about moral circle expansion, I think it's important to recognize that moral circle expansion to one group really doesn't necessarily have any correlation to...even towards one group of animals; people can be very compassionate towards their cats and their dogs who live in their homes and then not at all towards pigs or chickens living on factory farms. It's just in the same way when we're talking about different groups of humans or humans versus animals, that being moral around one issue doesn't mean that you necessarily have moral beliefs around another issue.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I want to move to a related but different topic. I don't know if this has influenced your views on animals or your passion for this cause, but I know that the topic of pain is a very personal one for you. Do you want to tell us a bit about your story with pain? I'd love to ask you some questions about how you learn to manage it.
LEAH: I've lived with chronic pain since I was 11 years old. It got much worse in my early 20s. It got to the point where — I used to be a professional musician. That was my career and — I had to stop playing because of the pain. I've had constant chronic pain basically every day of my life since I was 11 years old. So it's something I've had to learn to live with. I think one of the more interesting life lessons I've taken from it relates, I guess, the personal to the political. I don't have a firm takeaway here but maybe just some observations to share is that one of the ways that I manage my pain is essentially to not think about it or to react as little as possible to it. I know, there's this Buddhist concept of the second arrow. The first arrow is the one that hurts you. Then the second arrow is the one you shoot at yourself when you have all this resistance and all this upside in this emotional reaction to the fact that you got shot with the first arrow. So that's how I try to think about my pain. It's like, it's bad enough that I am in pain. But if I'm also then gonna think about, "Oh, it's so unfair. I lost all the opportunities. Life is so much harder for me than for others. I really wish this pain would go away," then it makes the pain worse, or at least it makes my subjective experience of it much worse. I think that's been a really important life lesson about how I relate to other identities that I have, and also how I think about doing good in the world. I guess I am disabled in the sense that I have physical things that I cannot do that other people can do. But I don't really find it helpful to frame to myself that I am disabled. I try to hold myself to the same standards I would other people. Maybe it's harder for me to sometimes accomplish those things. But I think I would suffer more if I didn't pursue the things that I wanted to do in life just because I knew that they would be harder for me or because it was unfair that it was going to be more difficult. A lot of (especially) social work tries to understand different identities that people have and understand people's experience of the world according to those identities. Then there's this paradox that the more I identify with an identity that is causing me harm or that makes me marginalized in our society in some ways, the more I suffer from it. So it's this interesting paradox. But on the other hand, I'm of course grateful that other activists have thought about disability and have made the world more accessible to me so that I have health insurance and when I go work at offices, they have to provide an ergonomic workstation for me and I have medical leave. I have all these benefits because someone has thought, "Well, disabled people need rights in the world," and gone and worked for those things for me. But then paradoxically, for me, as an individual, I find it personally harmful to identify in that category, because of the way it makes my life more difficult.
SPENCER: I think this tension that you're pointing at, is such an interesting one where the fact of the matter is that there are so many unfair things that happen to people. There are so many things that people didn't deserve that are bad, that they have to deal with. Simultaneously, while they could rightfully claim status as victim, there's something psychologically about thinking of yourself as a victim that can actually make your life significantly harder. If you have a victim mentality — by which I mean you think about, "This is unfair, I didn't deserve this," and that's a constant narrative running through your mind, especially if you think, "I have no control over this. The world is just doing this to me." — while you may be completely 100% justified for having those thoughts, it can actually impair your ability to make the best of the situation, to take effective action, to take control of the things you can take control of, even though you can't take control of everything. Do you feel like I've captured fairly what you're saying there?
LEAH: Yeah. There was a point in my medical treatment where I — also I was living in the United States where there were these different laws around disability — I had the option of being declared by a doctor as unable to work and then getting whatever social services would be available in terms of housing and money that come along with that. Or if I am able to work full-time, I don't qualify for any support. So I had to choose, do I want to take this path where I know I'm gonna have certain hindrances that will make it harder for me to work full-time, it will make it harder for me to pursue a career than other people. Or do I want to take this route that...everyone, of course, would have understood if I had just said, "Look, it's too much, and I don't want to try this." But I think the person who would have suffered the most would be me. I would be the one who would be forgoing life experiences. I would be the one who would be missing out on all these things. Certainly, it would be justified. But the choice that I've made for myself has been to not identify very much with that and of course, handle the moments where the reality comes — to face that I do have challenges that I face in these areas that other people don't — but to handle them at a concrete level and pursue my interests, regardless.
SPENCER: The type of disability that you face is also one that I feel a lot of people are not going to necessarily recognize or think of, because it's not visible. If someone talks to you, they just wouldn't realize that you're experiencing this constant pain. I'm wondering whether that has made it more difficult to live with a disability that nobody can recognize basically. On the other hand, you could argue that maybe that actually has advantages. Maybe people will discriminate less because they don't view you as disabled. I'm curious how that's been for you.
LEAH: Pretty much as you described it. It's a privilege to have the choice, of course, to decide if I want people to know or not. Of course, there are moments where maybe I'm wearing braces on my arms or maybe I physically can't do a thing that other people are doing and I need to tell people. Or maybe everyone else is standing up for two hours, and I have to be like, "Hey, sorry, I can't do that." So there are moments. I'm in a choir and I'm the only one who has a music stand because I'm the only one who can't hold my music up in front of me for the whole rehearsal. So if people do know — and there are, of course, occasions where I can't hide it — of course, on some level, it's frustrating that people often forget that I have a disability and say, "Hey, you want to play tennis this weekend?" It's like, "Well, no. I can't." Or friends will all go rock climbing and then it's like, "Okay, well, have fun." But I guess I've just found it more helpful to — of course, it's okay to feel disappointed in those moments. It's okay to feel excluded — but to just not let that become something that takes up a lot of real estate in my brain because it's just something that makes me unhappy. It's something that makes me miss out on all the great things that I can experience and do experience every day.
SPENCER: I see your point. Whether it's visible or invisible, there's just different things you face. If it's invisible, people forget about it; they may say insensitive things. If it's visible, people might prejudge you or treat you differently. It seems like there's no way to win. It's just a different set of negative effects you might have to face. Are you comfortable talking about what it feels like, what your internal experience and qualia is, on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis?
LEAH: Yeah. It's changed over the course of my life. But I would say, general description is that I have constant burning pain in my hands, forearms, shoulders, and neck. It's constant so it doesn't really go away. It's not often severe. It's not often the same as you would get if someone was stabbing you with a knife. It's not so acute, but it's very constant. So it can be draining in that sense.
SPENCER: Does it fluctuate in intensity?
LEAH: Yeah. But generally over the course of days, rather than the course of minute to minute or second to second.
SPENCER: That sounds just really distracting and unpleasant to live with. I'm wondering, are you able to forget about it at times? Or how do you deal with it moment to moment?
LEAH: I've had it for so long now, more than 20 years, that I actually do forget about it myself most of the time. I've lived in the same apartment now for a while and I have ergonomic furniture. I don't run into situations in my day-to-day life where I'm reminded of the fact that I can't do certain things. But then the pain itself, I notice it certainly, especially on bad days, it's impossible to forget. But then, I would say on those days, I just say, "Well, okay, then I need to have different expectations of myself for what I'm going to do." Or even what kind of thoughts might come into my head, like, if I'm in a lot of pain, I might also have bad dreams at night or a lot of negative thoughts that day. And just approach those challenges with the awareness that, "Okay, well, I just need to ignore whatever thoughts come into my head for the next 48 hours" or whatever. But I think I am quite lucky that, I would say, it's only maybe in the last four years or so that I've gotten to this point where I really do just forget about it for great parts of the day.
SPENCER: Is that largely by getting into a flow state where you're just so engaged with doing something that it's not in the center of your awareness?
LEAH: Definitely that, and I do meditation. I actually find my music practice to be one of the times where I'm most in flow state and most unaware of it. Then I think the skills that you develop for flow states and music, they carry over to a lot of the similar benefits that you might get from mindfulness practice meditation in other areas. So I think that's also something that helps me focus my attention on certain things and not others.
SPENCER: When you meditate, what kind of meditation do you do with regard to the pain? Do you actually focus on the feeling of pain or are you trying to broaden your focus?
LEAH: It really depends. I find body scan meditations to be helpful. But then I usually start from my feet to my head because if I start at the top of my body, I start on the pain and that's harder. I actually do notice a pretty drastic change in my ability to be mindful. So if I'm thinking about my feet or my legs which don't hurt, I'll be able to really focus on the sensations. Then when I get to the body scan, and I get to the upper body, to my arms, my brain will be like, "Think about anything else. Think about the world. Think about what you're having for dinner. Think about your cat." It's actually so, so much harder for me to keep my attention on the body parts that feel pain.
SPENCER: So it's like trying to keep your hand on a hot stove? It wants to withdraw.
SPENCER: Have you ever been able to, in meditation, get to a state where you're fully focused on the pain part and able to not suffer?
LEAH: Yeah. When I first started meditating, my sensation of the pain was higher because I was deliberately trying not to ignore it. So my subjective experience was that meditation is making my pain so much worse. But then, once I got past that, I got to the point where, because I was more mindful of the pain, I could also notice what I do in life, for example, in terms of ergonomic or unergonomic movements or in terms of stressful situations. I would notice right away when the pain got worse or what was affecting it. So I actually gained the ability to identify what was making it better or worse. Whereas before, I didn't really have that knowledge. So that's been very helpful.
SPENCER: Meditation gives you more bodily awareness. Is that what you're saying?
LEAH: Yeah. More awareness of what causes the pain. Also an ability to just look at it without reacting. I think I'm very unreactive to physical pain. Most people are like, "Oh, I can't believe that you're acting so normal." Of course, once it's above a certain threshold, it becomes harder but I've gotten to the point where my threshold is quite high for being able to just not engage with it or not resist it, I guess.
SPENCER: Does this carry over to other pain? Let's say you got a back injury temporarily or something like this. Do you feel like you relate to it differently than other people do?
LEAH: Yeah. I think I relate to it also differently on a physical level. My central nervous system is much more sensitive than most people's so I think my perception of pain is different. Things that might feel minor to other people, I feel them more strongly. But I have a separation between the feeling of the pain and deciding how I want to react. I still have that. If I stubbed my toe really hard, I have a moment where I can choose how I'm going to react.
SPENCER: Right. Whereas maybe others are just, they're gonna immediately say "Ow" and grab their foot, you're used to managing your behavior in light of pain and choosing how you act.
LEAH: Yeah. I even notice that during strenuous exercise, It feels very easy for me to (I guess) push through very strenuous exercise or be like, "Oh, it's very, very physically uncomfortable," but I also have a certain amount of ability to dissociate from my physical body, observe it but just like, "Well, I'll be back after my 30 minutes on the elliptical's up or whatever."
SPENCER: If we view pain as the experience of the physical sensation, the qualia, and suffering as this negative mental state, this state that feels bad, normally, pain and suffering are so connected that you wouldn't even think to separate them. If you feel pain, you suffer. But one thing that I've observed and I've also heard other people talk about is that, during meditation, you can get glimmers of them separating. I used to do this kind of meditation, just for practice, sometimes where I'd go out in the cold without wearing a jacket and I would try to focus on the feeling of cold and try to really be aware of exactly what it feels like. If I got into just the right state of really trying to not label it, like anytime my brain would say "Ow, this is bad. This hurts. I want to go inside," I will let those thoughts go. I'd really try to focus on just the pure sensation of what does this actually feel like? Let me not bring any of my characterizations or conceptualizations to the feeling but let's just pay attention to the feeling. Then I would get these moments, for 3 seconds or 5 seconds, where the pain and suffering would separate. I'd be in intense pain, it'd be this extreme feeling of cold, but I wouldn't be suffering anymore. Then usually after 5 seconds, I would fall out of it and I'd be suffering again. I'm wondering, have you had that separation during your meditation?
LEAH: I definitely have. There's also — again, I don't feel very informed on this, but I'm very interested in this — some research around the development or the understanding of pain as a medical condition of itself. There was a time where pain was not even really asked about in doctors' offices, fairly recently, I think up until maybe the 80s. It just wasn't very relevant. Doctors didn't say, "How much pain are you in?" Now, when you go to the doctor, there's also a pain scale. People ask you, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?" There are also conditions that we describe as "Okay, this person has chronic pain," like me, whereas in the past, we just viewed it as a passing ephemeral experience that may or may not have anything to do with the underlying condition. I think also by giving pain a label and by calling it something...I mean, I'm uncertain that I think the research isn't there about like, "Are we just putting a label on something that people have always experienced and now they're glad that we can research it and look at that? Or have we given something a name then our brains have developed a subjective experience around it?" There's a pretty interesting podcast called The Fifth Vital Sign by InvisibIlia about this. It talks about these categories of people who feel this type of chronic pain, and it's unclear what the physical origin is, but talking very much about how our identification with it can cause it to be felt differently. In this podcast, they also touch on this phenomenon. There's a specific demographic group, which I also fit into, of girls who start experiencing unexplained chronic pain in their early teens. They tend to be a similar archetype of high achiever girls who are rule-abiding, high-achieving, and usually academically successful, who develop chronic pain around that age. So there's a lot of thoughts about, "Where is this coming from? Could it come from it being socially unacceptable for those girls to have strong emotions, strong negative emotions, and then, it is acceptable to have a physical condition?" Anyway, there's just all sorts of interesting stuff to pull apart there and I'll be curious what the research shows over the next few years.
SPENCER: What was your experience like when the pain first started? Do you remember? You said you were 11 years old.
LEAH: Yeah. It started in my wrists. I think we thought it was tendonitis. There were just suddenly some things I couldn't do. Then it gradually started to affect my horn playing. Although, I have to say that was the last holdout because, as you mentioned with flow states, that was the area where I was able to most ignore it. So that, I was able to continue without actively perceiving the pain during horn-playing until my early 20s.
SPENCER: Then it grew from there?
LEAH: Yeah. Well, I would say in my early 20s was the peak of it. I would say, I don't know if it's less now, but it's been at least stable and I certainly have learned how to manage it better since then.
SPENCER: I assume the doctors don't have an explanation for it. They don't have, "Oh, this is caused by XYZ." Is that right?
LEAH: No. The only diagnosis I have is descriptive. It's chronic myofascial pain syndrome, which is just descriptive. It's not explaining why it happened.
SPENCER: I love how doctors give these long technical words, things that basically say, "We don't know what's wrong with you. [laughs] But we can say it in Latin." Before we finish, is there anything you want to say to people who experience chronic pain? What would your advice be if this is their first time experiencing it? Like, maybe they now have low back pain or something like that.
LEAH: I had a doctor who was a surgeon who operated on me. I had a surgery from him and it didn't help. In fact, it's made me a little bit worse. That was a downer. But he said something to me that I didn't really understand at the time, which was, "When I talk to my patients five or ten years after the surgery, they usually tell me that somehow it got better." I don't know if he literally means the pain got better, like their lives got better or their relationship with the pain got better. I think it's just really astonishing what our mind can learn to do. There's not a straightforward way to learn it. Some people recommend meditation. Some people recommend different types of occupational therapy. There's all sorts of alternative medicine. So I think with chronic pain, it can be not that straightforward to get an answer. But I think your brain can figure out how to live a worthwhile life even with a lot of pain, and surprisingly, it might just get better by being able to relate to it differently. There's a lot of unintuitive truth about pain that hopefully will become more intuitive as we learn more about the research.
SPENCER: So even if you never figure out what causes it or you never get a nice medical diagnosis that's satisfying, there's ways you can learn to live better and then it might just get better on its own as well?
LEAH: Yeah. One other topic — this is not directly answering the question you just asked but because we've spent so much of this time talking about animal suffering — I think there's just all sorts of fascinating implications about where pain comes from and the difference, as you mentioned, between the actual physical stimulus and how you react to it, and how that might have implications on how animals suffer. There's some theories that, of course, they might be very simple-minded and therefore not experience it as subjectively negative as we do. Or they might have a completely different framework. Maybe it feels like it's part of an evolutionary drive that is very strong for them fulfilling. But then there's other people who say that, because some animals don't have the same mental faculties to reason and understand things rationally, that they might be less able to cope with physical pain than humans are. There's just a lot of interesting directions that research can go and I hope there will be a better understanding over time. There's a researcher named Adam Shriver who's doing some interesting research in this area.
SPENCER: It's really interesting. The philosophical question of, "What is pain like to animals and does the reduced ability to have advanced cognitions make pain better or worse?" It's a really interesting question. Leah, thank you so much for coming on. This was a really fascinating conversation.
LEAH: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It was great to chat with you.
JOSH: A listener asks, "What's the most helpful hack you've found for motivation, either from your own life or in the life of somebody else you know that has struggled with motivation?"
SPENCER: I think there's different levels of motivation. There's the micro motivation, like, "Oh, man. I really should be working on that project but I really don't feel like doing it right now." For that, I find a couple things work really well. One is just making a plan with someone else to say, "Okay, I'm avoiding something. Why don't we both meet and then you can work on something you're avoiding and I can work on something I'm avoiding." So I have a regular weekly meeting with my research assistant, Claire, and what we do in those meetings is, I'm only allowed to work on the sort of thing that I tend to put off. Really what they are, are the projects that are important but never urgent. So there's never a deadline. I always just put other things important in front of them. That's really useful. Another thing that I find can really help in that micro motivation is by making a deal with myself. I'm like, "Okay, what if you go do this now for 20 minutes and then you get to do this really fun thing after." I find that that can increase my motivation level. Then there's the larger scale motivation of, how do you motivate yourself to stick with something over the long term. There I find the social thing can be really useful, too. By involving another person in that project who I know is not the sort of person who's gonna give up, that is really motivating for me. That might not work for everyone but for me, that's like a magical life hack of having another person who's going to be, "Spencer, I need this thing from you." Or "Let's push this forward." Then I'm going to stick with it and it will keep regenerating my motivation. Then the second thing there is just, in project selection, making sure to choose projects where you're really, really excited about the thing that you're going to be creating so that the end state is very, very motivating to you. Obviously, you don't always have control over that. All kinds of things are going to interfere and all kinds of things are going to determine what you can focus on and what your projects are. But insofar as you do have a choice, try to pick stuff where the end state of the project is actually super exciting and motivating to you so then you can try to keep reminding yourself of that when your motivation starts to flag.
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