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Animal welfare: antispeciesism, veganism and a “life worth living”


While antispeciesism is an ethical notion, veganism is behavioral. In this paper, we examine the links between the two. Building on Blackorby and Donaldson (Econ J 102:1345–1369, 1992), we consider a two-species model in which humans consume animals. The level of antispeciesism is conceived as the weight on animals’ welfare in the utilitarian social welfare function. We show that more antispeciesism increases meat consumption if and only if animals’ utility is positive. That is, the critical condition is whether farm animals’ lives are worth living. We then empirically explore this condition using a survey. We find that farm-animal experts and frequent meat eaters are more likely to believe that the lives of farm animals are worth living. We finally discuss some issues in the study of animal welfare in economics and social choice.

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  1. That is, it is costly to improve the rearing conditions of animals by for example increasing the size of cages or providing access to outdoor space.

  2. Blackorby and Donaldson (1992) use critical-level utilitarianism, which addresses concerns regarding the use of total utilitarianism. In our problem, there is no qualitative difference between critical-level and total utilitarianism. We thus adopt total utilitarianism for simplicity.

  3. This last result is obviously the consequence of our simplifying assumption that the marginal cost of animal welfare is constant. See the last section for a short discussion.

  4. In this specific example, note that under antispeciesism, i.e. \(\alpha \rightarrow 1\), then \(n^{*}\rightarrow \infty\). This can be interpreted as a form of Parfit’s repugnant conclusion applied to animal consumption: once animal utility is positive, it is always socially beneficial to produce and consume an additional animal. See Singer (2011) for a related idea.

  5. Note that under full speciesism, i.e. \(\alpha =0\), the optimal number of animals consumed \(n_{0}\) is defined by \(u_{h}^{\prime }(n_{0})-c_{0}=0\). Interestingly, it is mathematically possible that the number of animals consumed be greater under some levels of antispeciesism than under speciesism in the region where \(u_{a}(c^{*})\ge 0\). We can then ask: What is the impact of more antispeciesism on human welfare? Although more antispeciesism may drive \(n^{*}\) closer to the optimal speciesist’s consumption \(n_{0}\), this impact is always negative. At the optimum, the welfare of humans is defined by \(W(\alpha )\equiv u_{h}(n^{*})-c^{*}n^{*}\), and it is immediate from the envelope theorem that \(W^{\prime }(\alpha )\le-\frac{\partial c^{*}}{\partial \alpha }n^{*}\le 0\). That is, the welfare of humans falls with the level of antispeciesism.

  6. Our approach here to the “ chickens-pigs” problem is simplistic. In reality, there are of course many kinds of species to eat, with different characteristics and a multitude of mixing options to consider for the optimal diet. It would be thus interesting to consider a more realistic model where several species can be eaten simultaneously, and to examine the specific impact of the level of antispeciesism toward one species on the consumption of all species.

  7. Broom (2014) provides a list of negative and positive welfare indicators and Boissy et al. (2007) identify practical applications for the assessment of positive experiences such as pleasure. Nevertheless, in animal sciences there is usually no attempt to empirically measure if an animal life is worth living.

  8. This hypothesis is consistent with Matheny (2003): “ I suspect the suffering experienced by animals in factory farms is greater than that experienced by many of those sick dogs and cats we choose to euthanize, as factory farmed animals often experience an entire lifetime of suffering compared with a few weeks or months of pain. If, for instance, we knew our dog or cat would have no choice but to be confined in a cage so restrictive turning around or freely stretching limbs is difficult if not impossible, live in his own excrement, be castrated, debeaked, dehorned, or have his teeth, tail, and toes sliced off without anesthesia, I suspect most of us would believe euthanizing the animal would be the humane choice. It would be better, then, if farmed animals who endure these conditions did not exist.” Ng (1995) supports this hypothesis for wild animals: “ Thus, a typical individual is destined to starvation, capture, or struggling unsuccessfully for mating. It is difficult to imagine a positive welfare for such a life. Thus, while a mathematical proof is impossible, reason requires us to accept that, in all probabilities, the welfare of an individual (affective) sentient that fails to survive to have successful mating is negative. It follows that, if we can reduce the number of such miserable individuals, other things being equal, we can increase the level of overall welfare”. Horta (2016) shares the view in Ng, and systematically criticizes an idyllic view of Nature which is common in natural sciences that “ animals are able to live relatively easy and happy lives in the wild” .

  9. Broilers represent more than 80% of the around a billion farm animals that are slaughtered in France for meat every year. Moreover, a large majority of broilers in France are raised under intensive farming conditions (ITAVI 2018).

  10. We assigned values 1–5 to the answers ranging from “ strongly disagree” to “ strongly agree” . The Seemingly Unrelated Regression Estimation allows the individual error terms to be correlated between equations for each individual.

  11. A third factor could be selection bias, as these experts may be more likely to self-select into activities related to farm animals due to pre-existing beliefs.

  12. These results are robust to controlling for additional individual factors (e.g., age, political views and gender). These results are available upon request.

  13. Note that the hypothesis that more-frequent meat eaters attribute higher animal welfare because of moral dissonance is questionable. It is not clear whether meat consumption underlies views on animal welfare or vice versa. However some trivial manipulations in the experimental setting (e.g., offering meat or plant-based food in the pre- or post-experiment stage, as in Loughnan et al. (2010) and Bastian et al. (2012)) affect people’s beliefs, providing causal evidence that individual perceptions are affected by their desire to rationalize meat consumption. By comparing hypothetical and incentivized questionnaires, Espinosa and Stoop (2019) conclude that moral dissonance plays a significant role in explaining beliefs about animal-based diets.

  14. Welfarism for farm animals is usually defined as the objective of the improvement of rearing conditions. Veganism usually corresponds to no use (and thus no consumption) of animals. Obviously, welfarism and veganism are also more broadly related to strategic or political movements (Leenaert 2017).

  15. Emphasizing the debate at the time, Salt (1914) cites Leslie Stephen: “Of all the arguments for Vegetarianism none is so weak as the argument from humanity. The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”

  16. As Singer (1975) writes: “Anyone who eats meat is an interested party. (...) For behind the mere momentary desire to eat meat on a particular occasion lie many years of habitual meat-eating which have conditioned our attitudes to animals.”

  17. This is reminiscent of McMahan (2008): “human intuitions about the moral status of animals are so contaminated by self-interest and irrational religious belief as to be almost wholly unreliable.”

  18. Our characterization obviously raises the immense challenge of interspecies’ utility comparisons (Johansson-Stenman 2018). Currently, there do not exist good methods for quantifying animal wellbeing and putting it on the same scale as quantified human wellbeing (Budolfson and Spears 2019).

  19. More precisely, we assumed impartiality within species but not across species. One may argue that this assumption is illogical, and may require us to assign different weights to different individuals within the same species, including humans, which many view as a “slippery slope” . See Singer (2009) for a discussion of this argument.

  20. Note however that model (1) can be conceived as a model of individual human-consumption choices under pure altruism towards animals.

  21. Take the current reduction in meat consumption in developed countries, that we can view as an exogenous preference-shift in our model. Many have suggested that this shift is due to health and environmental concerns, and explains a trend toward “less but better” meat (Boer (de) et al. 2014). The point is that the normative implications for animal welfare of such a preference shift is unclear a priori under nonlinear marginal cost. This is left for future research.

  22. This formal point seems consistent with Singer (1980).

  23. To capture this, the “stretch” in our model is that, for very high levels of animal welfare levels c implying high animal utilities, the model could possibly accomodate for an interpretation where animals are simply “consumed” as pets or neighbours but not as meat.


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Correspondence to Nicolas Treich.

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We thank the editor, the associate editor, two anonymous reviewers, Campbell Brown, Alexis Carlier, Andrew Clark, Loren Geille, Anders Herlitz, Pierre Mormède, Olivier Musy as well as participants at the conference “Animals and social welfare” at Duke University and the “ Eating Meat” at DIW Berlin for useful comments. Romain Espinosa ackowledges financial support from ANR under grant ANR-19-CE21-0005-01. Nicolas Treich acknowledges funding from ANR under grant ANR-17-EURE-0010 (Investissements d’Avenir program), INRAE and the IDEX AMEP Chair.

Appendix: Survey

Appendix: Survey

1.1 Implementation of the survey

The survey was carried out in France in Spring 2019. We contacted experts in farm-animal welfare and animal ethics via e-mail. We asked them if they would anonymously fill out a Google form document containing the survey questionnaire presented below. We contacted 28 experts in animal ethics, 20 of whom (71.4%) completed the questionnaire. We contacted 129 experts in farm animals (39 experts in poultry, 40 in bovine and 50 in porcine farming), 19 of whom (14.7%) completed the questionnaire. We also contacted animal activists through the Facebook site of an animal advocacy NGO in France which had 672 followers at the time of the survey. The followers could also anonymously fill out the Google form document containing the survey questionnaire. 70 followers opened the link to the questionnaire and 62 actually completed the questionnaire.

Table 4 Living conditions in each scenario—please fill in the last line of the table

We also invited students at the University of Rennes 1 to participate in an experiment (only a part of the experiment concerned our study). Ten days before the experiment, participants were asked to complete a mandatory online document that they had to complete up to two days before the experiment began. The online document asked participants to indicate how often (never, a few times a year, a few times a month, a few times a week, almost at each meal) they consume a list of items (red meat, white meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, pulses, fruit, and starchy products). On the day of the experiment, we asked students in the lab to fill out the questionnaire that was presented to them on a sheet of paper. In total, 122 students participated in this experiment and completed the questionnaire.

1.2 Survey questionnaire

(Translated from French, parts in bold in the original text)

In Table 4 you will find seven scenarios describing different living conditions of a broiler in a poultry farm. Scenarios 1–5 correspond to the standard living conditions according to different farming conditions in France, which are compatible with European regulatory requirements. The scenarios—listed from 1 to 7—are described in Table 4.

For each scenario, we will ask you to give your personal opinion on the following statement: “ The life of a broiler reared in those conditions is worth living” . You can either answer that you: 1 Strongly disagree; 2 Tend to disagree; 3 Neither agree nor disagree; 4 Tend to agree; 5 Strongly agree. Thus, if you answer 1 for instance, this means that you do not think that the life of a broiler reared in these conditions is worth living. However, if you answer 5, this means that you think that the life of a broiler reared in these conditions is worth living.

We stress that we would like to know your perception of whether a broiler’s life worth living. We ask you to evaluate the value of life for the broiler, and not from the point of view of a consumer or from a point of view of the producer of broilers for instance. Thus, we want to know if according to you it would be preferable that a broiler was born and reared in the living conditions mentioned in the different scenarios, rather than not born at all. In order to answer to each of these questions, you can ask yourself for instance whether the sum of positive experiences (pleasure, etc.) is greater than the sum of negative experiences (pain, etc.) the broiler experiences under the living conditions described in each scenario.

There are no right or wrong answers. We are simply interested in your frank and subjective opinion on the value of life of a broiler under different living conditions. This questionnaire is part of a study of CNRS and INRA researchers on animal welfare, and the individual data collected will be kept confidential.

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Espinosa, R., Treich, N. Animal welfare: antispeciesism, veganism and a “life worth living”. Soc Choice Welf 56, 531–548 (2021).

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