Advocates for animals are often asked: "Is it wrong to focus on animal welfare when humans are suffering?" This question carries an implicit assumption that many of us believe: nonhuman animals are not as worthy of moral consideration as humans.
Upon consideration, however, it's difficult to justify the assumption that humans are more worthy of moral consideration than animals. Animals have inner lives and the capacity to suffer, just like humans do. If we want to make the world a better place, we should try to reduce suffering --- regardless of who is experiencing it. Moreover, alleviating human suffering and alleviating animal suffering are not mutually exclusive. We can do both!
Animals deserve moral consideration.
Many humans love and value nonhuman animals. Studies show that interacting with nonhuman animals (at home, at petting zoos, or even in an aquarium) can lower anxiety and stress. It can even lower heart rate and blood pressure. Though survey data varies, more than half of U.S. households include at least one companion animal. One study suggests that dog owners feel as emotionally close to their dogs as they do to their closest family members.
Yet, while we love the animals we interact with daily, many people --- perhaps the majority of the planet --- live lifestyles and maintain diets that harm animals around the globe. It seems that many of us carry an implicit assumption that, while they're loveable, nonhuman animals are not worthy of the same level of moral consideration as humans. Some people even believe that animals do not deserve moral consideration at all. In other words, while humans have certain moral obligations to each other (e.g., we have an obligation not to harm each other), some believe that we have no such obligations to nonhuman animals. This belief is convenient, as it allows us to justify common lifestyle and dietary choices that cause suffering to billions of animals.
Upon reflection, it's quite difficult to justify the belief that humans deserve moral consideration and animals do not. Our treatment of animals cannot be justified by the simple fact that animals are a different species from us. Philosopher Peter Singer likens discrimination based on species membership to discrimination based on race, gender, or any other feature of identity:
"[T]he racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case."
Animals can suffer, just like us.
Humans and nonhuman animals all have inner lives and the capacity to suffer. It's true that humans and animals differ in many ways, and it is difficult for us to know the degree to which the suffering of one species resembles the suffering of another. Still, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that nonhuman animals suffer a great deal, whether in factory farms or in the wild. Each year, 70 billion land animals are farmed in terrible conditions, one trillion fish are killed, and countless animals suffer disease, hunger, and predation in the wild.
The scale of animal suffering is so large that the opportunity to have a positive impact by advocating for animals is enormous. Effectively advocating for the welfare of nonhuman animals remains a highly cost-effective way to do good in the world.
We don’t have to choose between helping humans and helping animals.
Luckily, we don't need to choose between helping only humans and helping only animals. The two are intimately linked. For instance, in addition to the suffering they cause, factory farms increase the risk of pandemics and are a large contributor to climate change. We need not complete one project (ending all human suffering) before beginning another (addressing animal suffering). After all, it's not clear that ending human suffering will ever be "complete."
If you'd like to join the effort to help animals, you can donate to one of many effective organisations that we recommend:
This post is part of an update of our "Myths About Charity" page. Multiple authors contributed.