The Meat Investor Problem

This is the third in a three part series on poverty and veganism/animal rights that I’ve been writing.

My friend Scott Weathers wrote a post recently on “the poor meat eater problem,” wherein people who want to address global poverty but are anti-speciesist have to deal with the worry that their money will hurt a great number of animals. Today I want to turn to a different problem: for many people in developing countries, “purchasing” an animal is a form of investment when savings are difficult to come by and an important business decision. There’s also evidence that this helps boost people’s income, particularly when coupled with other goods (full disclosure: I work at Innovations for Poverty Action, which did the linked-to study). Nearly every survey of poverty in developing countries asks, in a disinterested way, whether somebody owns “livestock”, which type, and how much.

I struggle with this a lot. Part of it is probably good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance. Part of it is probably not wanting to think that one good thing (helping someone in severe poverty develop a stable income) can come at the cost of another (dozens of animals killed in frequently horrifically botched slaughter), or vice versa. I’ve tried not to think about it, but being in Ghana since becoming an activist for animals (and while doing a tiny bit of activism over the web) has forced me to come to terms with this dilemma.

I’ve come to the terms with recognizing that promoting the ownership of livestock, even for those in severe poverty, is wrong and I think this conclusion should be less controversial than it likely would be (even among my supportive colleagues, I would guess). It's wrong because of the basic cogency of anti-speciesism. I'm not going to explain that; for that argument see here. I do want to explain why the idea of restricting anti-poverty policies in this way is more controversial than it should be.

There are two ways in which I think speciesism makes people have a generally insurmountable knee-jerk reaction against the idea of rejecting using animals when it will actually help people. The first is that it frames the window through which we see the world and potential solutions to poverty. The second is that it dramatically affects our calculation of the benefits.

First, the window: when we look at policies to address poverty, we don’t look at every policy, though we may not notice the ones we exclude. For instance, I don’t think many Western economists would look at ways to experiment with the use of child labor and how it can increase farm productivity, even though it probably could indeed do that. I also doubt anyone would study the effect of slavery (or sexual slavery) on productivity (at least in an experimental way) on poor businesses in developing countries. Nobody would study a drug known to be toxic to one class of humans that could still affect their household. Even with animals, nobody would study the effect of what is commonly accepted as aberrant animal abuse on productivity.

That is all to say that the norms we accept frame the set of actions we consider to address a problem, though it’s often invisible. So when someone says that it’s wrong to not consider providing “livestock” to alleviate poverty, they are really saying that not using “livestock” is not a norm worth following the way that, say, not using child labor is. That is, they are begging the question: a question that I think Singer and others have answered decisively.

Second, the benefits: even once we decide what policies to consider, speciesism frames the benefits from that policy that we include in our consideration. Fifty years ago, an economist might have neglected female income or treated female wellbeing in a very different way. A hundred fifty years ago, an economist would have all sorts of paternalistic views of nonwhite people that would skew the way they considered benefits to them. An economist might also have viewed children’s desire not to work as a matter of temper tantrums and neglect the harms to a child involved in child labor.

Today, economists generally consider the interests of all the humans affected by a policy. But where animals’ interests are affected, there is no plausible moral case not to consider animals as well.

A few years ago, I was torn between focusing on global poverty and focusing on animal liberation. I’m increasingly persuaded that animal liberation – the question that affects the vast majority of the mammals and birds on this planet and could determine the future of the planet’s wild animals – is the question where I should spend my time. I think it’s reasonable to disagree, though, depending on how one ways certainty of evidence or the importance of human development for the far future.

It seems pretty clear to me, though, that there isn’t a good case for addressing poverty by using animals. One of the most vital questions of the twenty-first century may be whether developing countries develop the hellish animal death camps that exist in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Let’s not play a role in making that happen.


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