Progress, Animal Welfare, and Our Moral Circle

Given the abundance of bad news propping up our social media feeds and TV screens — a possible nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, the spread of far-right populism in Europe, people putting pineapple on pizza, etc. — you could be forgiven for thinking that life on Earth is becoming more dangerous and miserable. These are, to be sure, trends and events that should concern us all, but are things really as bad as they seem?

The economist Max Roser appears to have provided us with an antidote to our pessimism, namely data. His brilliant website — — tracks metrics often considered indicative of wellbeing — literacy, wealth, health, and more — many of which suggest we’re making progress, even in 2018. There is a growing number of people, including me, who like to share these stats, often to show that, despite our aforementioned troubles, the world is becoming a better place. Exhibit A: my Facebook status from the 28th of July 2016:

I don’t necessarily regret that status. After all, I want people to explore the site, I cautioned against complacency, and the notion that “data > headlines” is one I continue to endorse. “2018 me” wouldn’t post it though, or if I did, I’d tweak it slightly for reasons I will soon explain.

This narrative of progress, however, has much more prominent advocates: In a widely shared New York Times article, the journalist Nick Kirstof, reflecting on 2017, called it the “Best year in Human History.” He, too, cites Roser’s stats, pointing to the fact that illiteracy, child mortality and extreme poverty have continued to fall. In my home country of South Africa, opinionista and contrarian Ivo Vegter wrote a similar piece in the Daily Maverick, going so far as to suggest that “The state of the world is awesome.” I’ll give Vegter the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s the victim of not writing his own headline. Even if by some measures, 2017 was, indeed, the best year, that doesn’t mean that the current state of the world inspires awe (as an analogy, consider that the best stalk of asparagus you’ve ever had was probably still awful). Despite the hyperbolic headline, much of his message rang true and aligned with that of Kristof: most metrics suggest that life is getting better.

This theme — that matters are improving — has gathered momentum over the past several years, and was in large part popularized by Harvard professor Steven Pinker with his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s an important piece of work, chronicling the decline of certain types of violence and an overall improvement in human attitudes. It also shows that much of the pessimism practiced by large swaths of the population is misplaced, and that those constantly decrying the state of the world are nostalgic for a past that didn’t exist. There is a danger in denying progress, for it can lead to apathy and fatalism, and I’m grateful to Pinker and others for providing us with some much-needed perspective. In a 2015 debate on the topic of progress Pinker remarked “Optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but so is pessimism.” I concur, so I’m not about to join the pessimists.

But, despite being reasonably optimistic about the future, I’m reluctant to join Pinker and co. in celebrating how “far” we’ve come. After all, the extent to which things have — or haven’t — gotten better; the extent to which violence has — or hasn’t — declined, depends, in large part, on the size of one’s moral circle.

Consider this less widely shared graph (also courtesy showing how meat production has quintupled over the last 50 years:

Our World In Data meat consumption graph.

Meat, to those who don’t know, is made of dead animal flesh, the production of which entails the death and suffering of said animals. Over 50 billion animals are raised and killed annually, the majority of whom are subjected to lives inside factory farms. So, when it’s said that “life is getting better” we have to be very clear which lives we are talking about. And when it is said that “violence is declining” we have to wonder if violence toward animals matters at all. Once you include animals in your circle of empathy, it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that the last fifty years have been a moral catastrophe.

Of course, we could keep ignoring the interests of animals and simply continue to celebrate the progress that has been made for humans. But is this justifiable? In the past we have excluded certain humans from our calculus too, and measured progress by our own race, own religious group, own nation, own town. And what if someone’s moral circle doesn’t extend beyond his own family? Consider a hypothetical, well-off family in 1350, when the “Black Death” was running rampant in Europe, killing up to half of its population. In a letter to his sister, the patriarch of this fictional family writes “Dear Elisabeth, a lot has happened in the last year. Mary has recovered from her illness (health), Bob has learned to read and write (literacy), and business is going well (wealth). Life sure is getting better!” Given the narrow nature of his concerns, he wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s something macabre about celebrating the quality of life whilst millions of your fellow citizens are suffering and dying. And the situation we’re currently in is not too dissimilar. To be sure, we need not concern ourselves with the financial status of pigs or the reading skills of cows, but any serious examination of life, death, suffering and violence must consider all those who can experience it, and that means animals too.

Of course, many carnivores argue that they do consider the lives of animals. After all, it’s the meat-eater’s dietary choices that make the animals’ lives possible. In his book Practical Ethics, the philosopher Peter Singer recalls a quote from British essayist Leslie Stephen who once wrote, “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.” Justifying the decision to eat meat by appealing to the interests of the dead animal on one’s plate has always struck me as disingenuous, but it’s an argument that carries some weight if we could be confident that, prior to their death, these animals lived net-positive lives. But do they? The majority of today’s animal protein is produced on factory farms, and any reasonable person brave enough to investigate what that entails — restricted movement, mutilation without pain relief, death from dehydration, and more horror — will come to the same conclusion: some lives are not worth living.

The blame for this misery can’t be placed solely on the farmers. Everyone who buys food is, to use Wendell Berry’s phrase, “farming by proxy.” Unfortunately, the solution to this problem isn’t as simple as switching from factory farmed meat to the free-range option. Firstly, although the latter is less cruel, it’s also less efficient. Free-range farming requires a lot more land and resources, so much so that it couldn’t realistically satisfy current demand. Secondly, as long as farmers can profit from the sale of dead animal flesh, they’ll always be incentivized to maximize meat yields, not animal welfare. It’s possible, of course, to imagine a world where all of us eat much less meat, and where farmers can truly care for each of their animals. If that scenario is the best one is debatable, but the claim that life has gotten better would then be justifiable.

Whenever the topic of progress is raised, proponents of neoliberalism are often quick to credit their preferred economic policies. Despite escaping strict definition, neoliberalism, at its core, is understood to promote progress through economic growth, the latter being enabled by laissez-faire economics. I think it’s undeniable that free trade, deregulation and privatization have been instrumental in extending human lifespans and lifting people out of poverty, but are these same policies not also, in part, responsible for the increase in violence toward animals? Technological developments enable mass slaughter; discoveries in nutrition allow farmers to deny their livestock sunlight and keep them indoors; combine these trends with the incentive of maximizing profit margins and what you get is the perfect storm of animal misery. Neoliberalism is very effective, but it’s also amoral (not to be confused with immoral). The amount of good it can do is ultimately down to our values. You want meat? You got it! And lots of it! I’m not calling for the abandonment of neoliberalism, but I am stressing the importance of adjusting our values. Any criticism of other economic and political systems’ empirical failings (“Communism kills!”) will ring hollow if death and suffering continue to escalate in our own societies. For neoliberalism to deliver true progress we need to expand our moral circle. Maybe 2018 can be the year in which we do just that.

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  1. If you’re going to mention Pinker, it is only fair to note that in “Better Angels” he addresses the rise of animal rights activism in his chapter “Rights Revolution.” I appreciate your piece, while at the same time, it, and numerous other pieces referring to Pinker, have the annoying habit of presenting his work as though it’s a fawning paean to progress and optimism. In fact, it’s far more nuanced than that and is careful to point out kinks in the road and outright atrocities that remain.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. FWIW, I’m a big fan of Steven Pinker and “Better Angels.” But I honestly think that he gave short shrift to the topic of animal well-being. Also note that there is a difference in animal well-being and animal rights, as well as attitudes toward animals. Animal rights and attitudes towards animals have improved, but that is little consolation to rising number of animals born into lives of misery.

  2. In civilised countries, farmed animals generally have a better life and death than wild animals. Hardly any wild animals die peacefully of old age. The most common causes of death in wild animals are predation, disease or starvation. Nature is crueler than farming. Provided that livestock are properly stunned before slaughter (without any religious exemptions) they can die without pain or suffering.

    1. Hi Tim. Thank you for the feedback. The comparison to life in the wild isn’t relevant here. If life for animals in the wild is bad, it doesn’t follow that we ought to create more miserable lives on farms.

      1. Tell that to the chicks that live in cramped, sunless, ammonia-ridden quarters only to be killed when they’re 6 weeks old. And in some respects, they’re the lucky ones. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are thrown into grinders after they’re born because they’ll never lay eggs.

        Nature may be cruel, but that does not give us permission to be cruel as well.

        For more on how animals are actually treated, I suggest checking out my essay for Areo:

  3. The very neoliberalism and laissez-faire economics which brought us abundant meat are about to bring us meat without animal suffering:
    As always, technology solves the problems it creates if people and markets are left free to find solutions. I have invested in this company and I invite you to join me.

    1. Thanks, Phil. I’m familiar with Memphis Meats and love what they’re doing. This is also why I don’t want to abandon neoliberalism (as I clearly stated in the piece). I’m merely pleading for us to adjust our values. Cultured meat is a product of just that.

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