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  • Owen Gunden

On Counting Chickens

Within the animal freedom movement, I have noticed there exists a desire to quantify our efforts. Sometimes we may look at a particular intervention or approach and ask the question: "how many animals are going to be helped?" or "how much suffering is going to be mitigated?"

I think there's a fairly good reason for wanting to quantify: so that we might know how to value different interventions or approaches, at least relative to each other.

This seems a futile effort to me, however, because there are so many pitfalls.

To enumerate a few:

  • How does one compare different levels of suffering?

  • Specifically, does a more cognitively complex animal such as an elephant suffer more or less than a less cognitively complex animal such as a chicken or fish?

  • How do we value extreme suffering in smaller numbers of individuals versus mild suffering in larger numbers?

  • Should experiencing joy factor in? If so, how much suffering is "worth it" if it buys some amount of joy?

  • How do we compute the value of life versus the cost of suffering, as we inevitably come up against that question in our attempt to quantify?

  • If, to one individual, their life means everything, how do we do math with what is an essentially infinite amount of utility assigned by that individual on their own well-being or survival?

The existence of these pitfalls makes this approach susceptible to seemingly absurd results, such as the idea that a world covered with chicken farms where the chickens have slightly more joy than suffering is something to be striven for, or the idea that we might have to evaluate the suffering of larger numbers of chickens raised for food (because it's better for the climate and hence lots of animals indirectly) versus smaller numbers of cows (because it's fewer

animals suffering).

Each of these pitfalls is basically intractable. Combined it's a total mess.

But if we don't quantify, how will we know which interventions are "better" and thus more worthy of our support?

I am not a philosopher, but I can pretend. I think the whole concept of minimizing suffering is not very useful. The problem isn't that we aren't answering the question well enough; the problem is that the question isn't answerable.

This is one reason that, at Phauna, we define our mission not as reducing suffering, or to maximize utility, but rather to transform human culture to one which perceives animals in a different way.

This leads to a completely different approach, where we have different measures of success and a different set of questions guiding our interventions.

Our measures of success might be things like:

  • Do we have a good understanding of how cultural change happens?

  • Can we increase the frequency with which animal issues are discussed in the media?

  • How many people are organized and mobilized for our cause?

  • Influencing public opinion in measurable ways

  • Measurably increasing the movement's political and/or economic power

And our questions more like:

  • How do our societies relate to animals today, and what are the moral perceptions around these relationships?

  • What types of activities have led to significant cultural shifts in other arenas?

  • What is the role of spirituality and religion in shaping cultural norms?

  • What have been the relationship between cultural and institutional values, and how can we use this information to guide our approach within institutions?

  • How can we organize the already existing large numbers of humans who share liberationist values to apply economic and political power towards institutional change, while reinforcing and strengthening cultural norms?

  • What causes people to change their minds about things?

  • How do norms travel through social networks?

  • How can we make liberationist culture something that is viewed as incredibly desirable and of high social status, so that people are drawn in of their own accord?

Thanks for reading.

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Robert Grillo
Robert Grillo
3 days ago

Great read! Really appreciate this perspective. Mark Engler suggests we measure our progress based on a couple of important questions. Are we building capacity as a movement? And is public opinion polling in our favor over time or against us? Of course polling has many flaws and is not feasible for all of us in the grassroots.

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