Discussions of animal law and legal longtermism often take place separately. That separation is misguided. Each field has much to gain from the other. In this post, we explain why animal law is important for legal longtermism. We then propose two general steps that legal longtermists can take to bridge these fields.
Why animal law is important for legal longtermism
Animal law is intrinsically important for legal longtermism because many future nonhuman animals will exist, in expectation. At present, an estimated one sextillion animals exist. While most of these are microscopic invertebrates like nematodes, even on the assumption that the “average” nonhuman animal matters only, say, 0.00000001% as much as the “average” human, nonhuman animals would still matter more than 10 times as much as all humans in the aggregate.
How these population levels change over time will depend largely on our decisions. For instance, if we spread beyond this planet by building space stations, the ratio of human to nonhuman animals might increase sharply. But if we spread beyond this planet by terraforming planets, the ratio of human to nonhuman animals (including, perhaps, farmed animals) might increase less sharply, if at all. And either way, the absolute number of future nonhuman animals is likely very high.
To ensure that we make good decisions about our treatment of future nonhuman animals, we need both animal law and legal longtermism. For instance, the decision whether to work toward constructing space stations or terraforming planets will have massive implications for distant-future human and nonhuman animals alike. The institutions that make and regulate these decisions should be empowered to consider all these implications holistically.
However, that empowerment is unlikely without deliberate intervention. Scholars increasingly recognize that our legal institutions will influence the long-term future. But at present, these institutions generally classify nonhuman animals as “things” with little to no legal standing or representation. Without nonhuman-animal-centric intervention, this status quo will likely continue, and legal institutions will likely fail to pursue the optimal path for future animals.
Additionally, animal law is instrumentally important for legal longtermism because these fields overlap in several ways. They both concern legal status and representation for non-participating stakeholders in legal decisions. They also share an interest in ending practices like factory farming, deforestation, and the wildlife trade, which imperil current and future humans and nonhumans. Understanding these links allows us to improve work in both fields.
In the future, these links will likely extend to other nonhumans as well. For instance, if humanity survives long enough, then we might develop sentient artificial intelligences, replace ourselves with post-humans, or encounter extraterrestrial life. How we treat nonhuman animals now might help shape how we (or our successors) treat these other populations in the future. It might also help shape how some of these other populations treat us (or our successors).
Securing legal status and representation for nonhuman animals thus stands to benefit not only future nonhuman animals but also other future moral patients. Ensuring a positive long-term future requires mitigating existential risks and promoting moral, legal, and political circle expansion. Given the links between human and nonhuman health, welfare, and rights, improving our treatment of nonhuman animals under the law is an important part of both projects.
Importantly, doing this work effectively requires advancing animal law and legal longtermism not only in parallel but also together. Each field can build knowledge more effectively by learning from the other, and each can build power more effectively by collaborating with the other. Bridging these fields will help us to develop frameworks that extend appropriate consideration to all distant-future sentient beings, and then to promote these frameworks successfully.
Unfortunately, many longtermists—including legal longtermists—currently focus primarily or exclusively on humanity and human potential. They should reconsider this approach. If longtermists frame their project more inclusively—for instance, by aiming to preserve the potential for future happiness and flourishing for all moral patients—then they can preserve the current strengths of longtermism while mitigating some of the current weaknesses.
In response, some longtermists might claim that a current focus on preserving human potential is justified because preserving short-term potential for humans is key to preserving the long-term flourishing for all. But while we agree that short-term human potential is a key to long-term flourishing, we still recommend considering nonhumans more now. How history unfolds is path dependent. Short-term moral, legal, and political progress is another key to long-term flourishing.
First steps for bridging these fields
While animal law is currently a more developed field than legal longtermism, both fields are still young. We are only beginning to understand how representing nonhuman animals and future generations might change our legal and political institutions—or how these institutional changes might, in turn, change our broader ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. But we can and should take two general steps now to start answering these questions.
First, we can conduct and support high-quality academic work at the intersection of animal law and legal longtermism. This partly requires scaling up research, teaching, and outreach in both fields, so that more people can specialize in legal duties to nonhuman animals and future generations. It also partly requires building bridges between these fields, so that people working in each field have the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with people working in the other.
Working at this intersection will allow scholars to challenge existing understandings of important legal and political ideals. For instance, how do current understandings of legal standing, political standing, justice, economic efficiency, and universal human rights shape how we treat non-participating stakeholders under the law? Can we recast any of these concepts more inclusively? And, after any such recasting, which concepts will be most worth preserving?
Working at this intersection will also allow scholars to challenge the legal structures that help us to pursue these ideals. For instance, how do current understandings of personhood, citizenship, liberalism, democracy, and capitalism shape how we treat nonhuman animals and future generations? How can we design and implement institutions that respect the liberty of all, represent the interests of all, and treat everyone as property owners rather than as property?
Teaching and outreach will be essential as well. Engaging the next generation of legal scholars and practitioners will build capacity for future work. Creating resources like textbooks, literature reviews, scholarships, fellowships, journals, and book series will reduce barriers for entry. And raising public awareness about why legal consideration for non-participating stakeholders matters will help generate the popular and political will needed to realize this vision.
Second, we can conduct and support high-quality policy work at the intersection of animal law and legal longtermism. Even if we cannot extend full consideration to these populations in the short term, we can still extend partial consideration to them. If we pursue this goal selectively and strategically now, then we can start to normalize the aims of representing these populations and building infrastructure for doing so, as we work to build knowledge and capacity.
Fortunately, we have many opportunities to extend partial consideration to nonhuman animals and future generations in the short term. For instance, we can work to reduce our use of, and increase support for, animals as part of our efforts to prevent and adapt to pandemics, climate change, and other such threats. Such efforts can identify many interventions that stand to benefit current and future human and nonhuman animals at the same time.
We can also work to represent future generations and nonhuman animals more generally. Many governments have already declared that nonhuman animals and future generations matter and have already created public offices or citizens’ assemblies for considering our impacts on these populations. The more progress we can make in these respects now, the more we can build momentum towards beneficial transformative and integrative changes.
We can also work to build political power for nonhuman animals and future generations through broad grassroots movement building. By advocating for nonhuman animals and future generations—and by bridging this advocacy via advocacy for future nonhuman animals—we can increase support for other policy changes. We can also promote moral, legal, and political circle expansion more generally, with positive effects for other future moral patients.
Of course, this is not to say that we should fully bridge animal law and legal longtermism in these ways. We should preserve them as separate fields that operate independently to a degree. But we should at least partly bridge these fields in these ways, and we should conduct and support empirical research on what kind of balance between integration and separation would be optimal from a multispecies longtermist perspective in particular contexts.
We might not know yet what kind of world we should build for nonhuman animals or future generations. But we can be confident that building this world requires considering these populations together. Legal longtermists should build bridges with animal law for the sake of everyone who will or might exist in the future.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors alone, and this post does not purport to represent the views of the United States Government, the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or any of the authors’ other employers or affiliate organizations.