Crosspost of my blog.  

You shouldn’t eat animals in normal circumstances. That much is, in my view, quite thoroughly obvious. Animals undergo cruel, hellish conditions that we’d confidently describe as torture if they were inflicted on a human (or even a dog). No hamburger is worth that kind of cruelty. However, not all animals are the same. Contra Napoleon in Animal Farm, all animals are not equal.

Cows are big. The average person eats 2400 chickens but only 11 cows in their life. That’s mostly because chickens are so many times smaller than cows, so you can only get so many chicken sandwiches out of a single chicken. But how much worse is chicken than cow?

Brian Tomasik devised a helpful suffering calculator chart. It has various columns—one for how sentient you think the animals are, compared to humans, one for how long the animals lives, etc. You can change the numbers around if you want. I changed the sentience numbers to accord with the results of the most detailed report on the subject (for the animals they didn’t sample, I just compared similar animals), done by Rethink Priorities:

 

When I did that, I got the following:

 

Rather than, as the original chart did, setting cows = 1 for the sentience threshold, I set humans = 1 for it. So therefore you should think in terms of the suffering caused as roughly equivalent to the suffering caused if you locked a severely mentally enfeebled person or baby in a factory farm and tormented them for that number of days. Dairy turns out not that bad compared to the rest—a kg of dairy is only equivalent to torturing a baby for about 70 minutes in terms of suffering caused. That means if you get a gallon of milk, that’s only equivalent to confining and tormenting a baby for about 4 and a half hours. That’s positively humane compared to the rest!

Now I know people will object that human suffering is much worse than animal suffering. But this is totally unjustified. Making a human feel pain is generally worse because we feel pain more intensely, but in this case, we’re analyzing how bad a unit of pain is. If the amount of suffering is the same, it’s not clear what about animals is supposed to make their suffering so monumentally unimportant. Their feathers? Their lack of mental acuity? We controlled for that by having the comparison be a baby or a severely mentally disabled person (babies are dumb, wholly unable to do advanced mathematics). Ultimately, thinking animal pain doesn’t matter much is just unjustified speciesism, wherein one takes an obviously intrinsically morally irrelevant feature like species to determine moral worth. Just like racism and sexism, speciesism is wholly indefensible—it places moral significance on a totally morally insignificant category.

Even if you reject this, the chart should still inform your eating decisions. As long as you think animal suffering is bad, the chart is informative. Some kinds of animal products cause a lot more suffering than others—you should avoid the ones that cause more suffering.

Dairy, for instance, causes over 800 times less suffering than chicken and over 1000 times less than eggs. Drinking a gallon of milk a day for a year is then about as bad as having a chicken sandwich once every four months. Chicken is then really really bad—way worse than most other things. Dairy and beef mostly aren’t a big deal in comparison. And you can play around the numbers if you disagree with them—whatever answer you come to should be informative.

I remember seeing this chart was instrumental in my going vegan. I realized that each time I have a chicken sandwich, animals have to suffer in darkness, feces, filth, and misery for weeks on end. That’s not worth a sandwich, no matter how tasty. But if you are going to eat meat, at least lay off the chicken.

 

 

 


 

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So far as it goes, your argument seems correct. But you're leaving out a significant factor here--carbon emissions. Beef cattle are extraordinarily carbon intensive even compared to other animals raised for food. If you eat them, your emissions, combined with other people's emissions, are going to cause a huge amount of both human and non-human suffering.

There's a complication. You could, in principle, offset the damage from your carbon emissions. But you could also, in principle, eat animals who have been raised free range, and whose lives have probably been worth living up to the time they're killed. 

Both of these will require you to spend extra money, and investigate whether you're really getting what you pay for. Rather than going to all this trouble--and here we'll agree--it seems a lot better simply to eat an Impossible Burger. 

@Vasco Grillo would be well-placed to do the math here, but I have the strong intuition that under most views giving some weight to animal welfare the marginal climate damage from additional beef consumption will be outweighed by animal suffering reduction by a large margin.

 

Thanks for tagging me, Johannes! I have not read the post, but in my mind one should overwhelmingly focus on minimising animal suffering in the context of food consumption. I estimate the harm caused to farmed animals by the annual food consumption of a random person is 159 times that caused to humans by their annual GHG emissions.

Fig. 4 of Kuruc 2023 is relevant to the question. A welfare weight of 0.05 means that one values 0.05 units of welfare in humans as much as 1 unit of welfare in animals, and it would still require a social cost of carbon of over 7 k$/t for prioritising beef reductions over poultry reductions, whereas United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes one of 190 $/t. If one values 1 unit of welfare the same regardless of species (i.e. if one rejects speciesism), there is basically no way it makes sense to go from beef to poultry (ignoring effects on wild animals; see discussion below).

extended data figure 4

Vasco, I've read your post to which the first link leads quickly, so please correct me if I'm wrong. However, it left me wondering about two things:

(a) It wasn't clear to me that the estimate of global heating damages was counting global heating damages to non-humans.  The references to DALYs and 'climate change affecting more people with lower income' lead me to suspect you're not. But non-humans will surely be the vast majority of the victims of global heating--as well as, in some cases, its beneficiaries. While Timothy Chan is quite right to point out below that this is a complex matter, it's certainly isn't going to be a wash, and if the effects are negative, they're likely to be very bad.

(b) It appears you were working with a study that employed a discount rate of 2%. That's going to discount damages in 100 years to 13% of their present value, and damages in 200 years to 1.9% of their present value--and it goes downhill from there. But that seems very hard to justify. Discounting is often defended on the ground that our descendants will be richer than we are. But that rationale doesn’t apply to damages in worst-case scenarios. Because they could be so enduring, these damages are huge in expectation. Second, future non-humans won’t be richer than we are, so benefits to them don't have diminishing marginal utility compared with benefits to us.

The US government--including, so far as I know, the EPA--uses a discount rate that is higher than two percent, which makes future damages from global heating evaporate even more quickly. What's more, I'd be surprised if it's trying to value damages to wild animals in terms of the value they would attach to avoiding them, as opposed to the value that American human beings do. The latter approach, as Dale Jamieson has observed, is rather like valuing harm to slaves by what their masters would pay to avoid it.

Nice points, Matthew!

(a) It wasn't clear to me that the estimate of global heating damages was counting global heating damages to non-humans.

I have now clarified my estimate of the harms of GHG emissions only accounts for humans. I have also added:

estimated the scale of the welfare of wild animals is 10.9 M times that of farmed animals. Nonetheless, I have neglected the impact of GHG emissions on wild animals due to their high uncertainty. According to Brian Tomasik:

“On balance, I’m extremely uncertain about the net impact of climate change on wild-animal suffering; my probabilities are basically 50% net good vs. 50% net bad when just considering animal suffering on Earth in the next few centuries (ignoring side effects on humanity's very long-term future).”

In particular, it is unclear whether wild animals have positive/negative welfare.

I have added your name to the Acknowledgements. Let me know if you would rather remain anonymous.

(b) It appears you were working with a study that employed a discount rate of 2%. That's going to discount damages in 100 years to 13% of their present value, and damages in 200 years to 1.9% of their present value--and it goes downhill from there. But that seems very hard to justify. Discounting is often defended on the ground that our descendants will be richer than we are.

Carleton 2022 presents results for various discount rates, but I used the ones for their preferred value of 2 %. I have a footnote saying:

“Our preferred estimates use a discount rate of  = 2 %”. This is 1.08 (= 0.02/0.0185) times the 1.85 % (= (17.5/9.72)^(1/(2022 - 1990)) - 1) annual growth rate of the global real GDP per capita from 1990 to 2022. The adequate growth rate may be higher due to transformative AI, or lower owing to stagnation. I did not want to go into these considerations, so I just used Carleton 2022’s mainstream value.


But that rationale doesn’t apply to damages in worst-case scenarios. Because they could be so enduring, these damages are huge in expectation.

I used to think this was relevant, but mostly no longer do:

  • One should discount the future at the lowest possible rate, but it might still be the case that this is not much lower than 2 % (for reasons besides pure time discounting, which I agree should be 0).
  • I believe human extinction due to climate change is astronomically unlikely. I have a footnote with the following. "For donors interested in interventions explicitly targeting existential risk mitigation, I recommend donating to LTFF, which mainly supports AI safety. I guess existential risk from climate change is smaller than that from nuclear war (relatedly), and estimated the nearterm annual risk of human extinction from nuclear war is 5.93*10^-12, whereas I guess that from AI is 10^-6".
  • I guess human extinction is very unlikely to be an existential catastrophe. "For example, I think there would only be a 0.0513 % (= e^(-10^9/(132*10^6))) chance of a repetition of the last mass extinction 66 M years ago, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, to be existential". You can check the details of the Fermi estimate in the post.
  • If your worldview is such that very unlikely outcomes of climate chance still have meaningful expected value, the same will tend to apply to our treatment of animals. For example, I assume you would have to consider effects on digital minds.
  • I am open to indirect longterm effects dominating the expected value, but I suppose maximising more empirically quantifiable less uncertain effects on welfare is still a great heuristic.

Thanks, Vasco! You are welcome to list me in the acknowledgements. I’m glad to have the reference to Tomasik’s post, which Timothy Chan also cited below, and appreciate the detailed response. That said, I doubt we should be agnostic on whether the overall effects of global heating on wild animals will be good or bad.

The main upside of global heating for animal welfare, on Tomasik’s analysis, is that it could decrease wild animal populations, and thus wild animal suffering. On balance, in his view, the destruction of forests and coral reefs is a good thing. But that relies on the assumption that most wild animal lives are worse than nothing. Tomasik and others have given some powerful reasons to think this, but there are also strong arguments on the other side. Moreover, as Clare Palmer argues, global heating might increase wild animal numbers—and even Tomasik doesn’t seem sure it would decrease them.

In contrast, the main downside, in Tomasik’s analysis, is less controversial: that global heating is going to cause a lot of suffering by destroying or changing the habitats to which wild animals are adapted. ‘An “unfavorable climate”’, notes Katie McShane, ‘is one where there isn’t enough to eat, where what kept you safe from predators and diseases in the past no longer works, where you are increasingly watching your offspring and fellow group members suffer and die, and where the scarcity of resources leads to increased conflict, destabilizing group structures and increasing violent confrontations.' Palmer isn’t so sure: ‘Even if some animals suffer and die, climate change might result in an overall net gain in pleasure, or preference satisfaction (for instance) in the context of sentient animals. This may be unlikely, but it’s not impossible.’ True. But even if it’s only unlikely that global heating’s effects will be goodit means that its effects on existing animals are bad in expectation.

There’s another factor which Tomasik mentions in passing: there is some chance that global heating could lead to the collapse of human civilisation—perhaps in conjunction with other factors. In some respects, this would be a good thing for non-humans—notably, it would put an end to factory farming. It would also preclude the possibility of our spreading wild animal suffering to other planets. On the flipside, however, it would also eliminate the possibility of our doing anything sizable to mitigate wild animal suffering on earth.

Now, while there may be more doubt about the upsides than about the downsides of our GHG emissions, that needn’t decide the issue if the upsides are big enough. But even if Tomasik and others are right that wild animal lives are bad on net, there’s also doubt about whether global heating will reduce the number of wild animal lives. And even if both are these premises are met, I’m not sure they’d outweigh the suffering global heating would inflict on those wild animals who will exist.

I think you have misinterpreted what my article about discounting is recommending. In contrast to some other writers, I’m not calling for discounting at the lowest possible rate. Even at a rate of 2%, catastrophic damages evaporate in cost-benefit analysis if they occur more than a couple of centuries hence, thus giving next to no weight to the distant future. However, a traditional justification for discounting is that if we didn’t, we’d be obliged to invest nearly all our income, since the number of future people could be so great. I argue for discounting damages to those who would be much better off than we are at conventional rates, but giving sizable—even if not equal—weight to damages that would be suffered by everyone else, regardless of how far into the future they exist. My approach thus has affinities with the one advocated by Geir Asheim here

One implication is that while we’re under no obligation to make future rich people richer, we ought to be very worried about worst-case climate change scenarios, since in those humans could be poorer. Another is that since most non-humans for the foreseeable future will be worse off than we are, we shouldn’t discount their interests away. 

Thanks for the follow up, Matthew! Strongly upvoted.

My best guess is also that additional GHG emissions are bad for wild animals, but it has very low resilience, so I do not want to advocate for conservationism. My views on the badness of the factory-farming of birds are much more resilient, so I am happy with people switching from poultry to beef, although I would rather have them switch to plant-based alternatives. Personally, I have been eating plant-based for 5 years.

Moreover, as Clare Palmer argues

Just flagging this link seems broken.

I think you have misinterpreted what my article about discounting is recommending.

Sorry! It sounded so much like you were referring to Weitzman 1998 that I actually did not open the link. My bad! I have now changed "That paper says one should discount" to "One should discount".

a traditional justification for discounting is that if we didn’t, we’d be obliged to invest nearly all our income, since the number of future people could be so great.

I do not think this is a good argument for discounting. If it turns out we should invest nearly all our income to maximise welfare, then I would support it. In reality, I think the possibility of the number of future people being so great is more than offset by the rapid decay of how much we could affect such people, such that investing nearly all our income is not advisable.

I argue for discounting damages to those who would be much better off than we are at conventional rates, but giving sizable—even if not equal—weight to damages that would be suffered by everyone else, regardless of how far into the future they exist.

This rejects (perfect) impartiality, right? I strongly endorse expected total hedonistic utilitarianism, so I would rather maintain impartiality. At the same time, the above seems like a good heuristic for better outcomes even under fully impartial views.

Thanks, Vasco! That's odd--the Clare Palmer link is working for me. It's her paper 'Does Nature Matter? The Place of the Nonhuman in the Ethics of Climate Change'--what looks like a page proof is posted on www.academia.edu.

One of the arguments in my paper is that we're not morally obliged to do the expectably best thing of our own free will, even if we reliably can, when it would benefit others who will be much better off than we are whatever we do. So I think we disagree on that point. That said, I entirely endorse your argument about heuristics, and have argued elsewhere that even act utilitarians will do better if they reject extreme savings rates.

FYI the link doesn't work for me either

Odd! Perhaps this one will work better.

Research related to the research OP mentioned found that increases in carbon emissions also come with things that decrease (and increase) suffering in other ways, which has complicated the analysis of whether it results in a net increase or decrease in suffering. https://reducing-suffering.org/climate-change-and-wild-animals/ https://reducing-suffering.org/effects-climate-change-terrestrial-net-primary-productivity/ 

Beef cattle are not that carbon-intensive. If you're concerned about the climate, the main problem with cattle is their methane emissions.

If you eat them, your emissions, combined with other people's emissions, are going to cause a huge amount of both human and non-human suffering.

If I eat beef, my emissions combined with other people's emissions does some amount of harm. If I don't eat beef, other people's emissions do approximately the same amount of harm as there would have been if I had eaten it. The marginal harm from my food-based carbon emissions are really small compared to the marginal harm from my food-based contribution to animal suffering.

Even within the dairy and red meat categories, there are ways to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. Milk is better than cheese, and lamb is better than beef. Also, mussels and oysters do well on climate and (probably) welfare grounds.

Perhaps it is included in existing comments but there is a forum post on climate change vs global development showing that one should hesitate about always prioritizing the former. Then, as I understand it, if one gives only some weight to animals compared to people, I would expect is very roughly follows that one should definitely be cautious about prioritizing climate change over animal welfare. Hopefully we can find a solution that lets us avoid this trade-off though!

I went vegan for about 3 months, but found it was often a really large part of my thought process for the day "will I have enough to eat" "what will I eat". I imagine I could get it to a stable place in 6 - 12 months of it being a priority, but that focus seems better used elsewhere, even if animals are my top focus. 

If you find veganism easy or fulfilling, I would recommend it. But I'm not sure I'd recommend it in general, other than being  predictive of moral seriousness (though it's not clear which way causation goes there).

While I sympathize with the fact that going vegan is difficult for some, I do want to push back on the idea that the focus spent on adhering to a plant-based diet would be better spent elsewhere "if animals are [your] top focus." 

Broadly, the discussion around plant-based/vegan diets avoids the signal value of the dietary and lifestyle choices. If my top focus is non-human animals[1], then it seems to track pretty clearly to me that persons will take me less seriously if I do not make substantial lifestyle changes that indicate this. Whether or not this is justified rationally on part of the others is not the most important point,[2] but it remains the point that the populace at large do disregard the views of perceived hypocrites very heavily. I do not think it is a huge stretch to suggest that such a blow to credibility may impede one's work, at least in some circumstances.

 With that in mind, persons that are very dedicated to a particular cause--in this case advocacy for nonhuman animals--probably ought to seriously consider the signal they send to others with their lifestyle choices.

  1. ^

    Broadly, it actually is.

  2. ^

    I myself think hypocrisy in lifestyle choices is not that big of a deal; the climate activist that owns a gas guzzler or the longtermist who does not have kids is no less right or wrong about the issue at stake for having not done what is probably required of them within their own worldview. Similarly, the animal activist who cannot easily give up meat or dairy is no less right or wrong about the proposition that animal suffering is bad and ought to be addressed.

Okay but what is that signal value? 

For me, it felt like the cost of being vegan was 5 - 10 hours of attention each week. I think that would have fallen over time, but when I went on holiday it was much of what I was thinking about every meal and indeed around meals - will I be hungry etc etc. If readers are people who find it easier to cook and incorporate new processes then maybe it's a great idea. I don't, so it felt pretty costly to me. 

I doubt the signal value is worth more that that.

I found going vegan very difficult so I relate to your experience but I think your argument for it not actually being the right thing for you to do on altruistic grounds is weak. It’s worth introspecting on the extent to which “focusing” on getting used to veganism entails a meaningful trade off with doing good. I think people’s lives and schedules have a lot more slack in them than we like to admit, and I think far from all of the time/energy put into being vegan would have otherwise been spent on altruism. Meanwhile, once you’re used to being vegan, you’re used to it forever. Is the amount of time/energy you’d need to invest (discounted for the fact that likely you wouldn’t otherwise be spending this all on altruism) not worth it to unlock the benefits for animals of being vegan for the rest of your life?

Lastly, this argument doesn’t account for the extent to which being vegan will actually fuel your altruism. Acting in accordance with your values is fulfilling in a way that can fuel you. Plus, your commitment to the belief that ‘helping animals should be a top priority’ will likely be stronger if your actions are in alignment with that belief, given our tendency to change our beliefs to be in harmony with our actions, reducing cognitive dissonance. I haven’t articulated this last point well, but I think it’s an important one. See Joey’s post on this concept here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/DBcDZJhTDgig9QNHR/altruism-sharpens-altruism

If you’re open to giving veganism a go again I’m always happy to share tips or just lend you my ear as someone who tried for years and found it very hard :)

Is the amount of time/energy you’d need to invest (discounted for the fact that likely you wouldn’t otherwise be spending this all on altruism) not worth it to unlock the benefits for animals of being vegan for the rest of your life?

This argument doesn't hold as strongly as you think - because I can decide to be vegan later, so it's more like "benefits for animal until being vegan becomes a priority". And also perhaps animal suffering falls at some future time. 

And for me it's less about energy and more about focus. I don't feel like I get to pick too many things to focus on in any weak, usually 1-2 (eg this week I'm mainly focusing on "getting work done" and "going to bed one time"). Veganism felt like it took up .2-1 of a slot for most of the time I did it. So yeah, I don't think it was worth it. 

I think the fuelling activism point is kind of good - I did find it easier to talk about animals when I knew I was taking pains to avoid them. 

But there is a deeper kind of activism I might want to fuel, that of trying to do the most effective thing. It did feel a bit incongruous to spend mine and others time to avoid eating animals while my company wasn't at the point I wanted it to be. And most of my impact will probably be through my work. Someone pointed out that this was inconsistent and I think they were right.

At some point veganism might be a top priority for me, but I'm not convinced it is now. 

Thanks for writing this, it drives home to me the point of taking a broad perspective when making ethical choices. I am wondering if you take animal product consumption a step further and look at only eating animal products where you know both of the below are true?

  1. The animals have a very high degree of welfare (think small, local farms you can visit, you know the farmer, etc.)
  2. The way they are slaughtered is the most humane possible, ideally on-farm etc. so they more or less have no idea what is coming for them until they are gone - in my mind this more or less has no suffering from a utilitarian perspective (unless the animals somehow are able to anticipate the slaughter and have increased anxiety throughout their lives because of it).

I have been pretty vegan so far, but people around me are arguing for the type of animal products above and I have a hard time pushing back on it.

Hi Ulrik - I'm not aware of farms which have slaughter facilities on-site (is this more common in the US than in the UK maybe?) and the 'small, local high welfare farm' is also a bit of a myth. The majority of farmed animals (85% in the UK, 99% in the US) are factory-farmed (i.e. raised in the most intensive conditions), are killed at a fraction of their natural lifespans, transported and killed in high-speed slaughterhouses - whilst abuses have been documented in both large and small 'local' slaughter facilities. The 2 conditions / requirements you have stipulated in your post are hypothetical / wishful-thinking type scenarios which are, unfortunately, not borne out by the realities of farming and killing billions of animals for consumption. 

"The majority of farmed animals (85% in the UK, 99% in the US) are factory-farmed (i.e. raised in the most intensive conditions)"

But the majority of cows and sheep are not factory farmed. All chickens are factory farmed and they are many. On the other hand, ruminants are often raised from pastures, as anybody driving in the coutryside can check by herself.

Ok that's good to know - I will probably be pretty vegan going forward. By the way I love all the hard evidence here on the EAF about animal welfare. It really makes me viscerally upset about the scale of abuse we currently inflict on our feathered and four-legged friends. So thanks to you and everyone else on further opening my eyes and heart to this.

Not opining on the overall question, but FWIW I'm not sure on-farm slaughter is better. Reason being — I think that large slaughterhouses have "smoother" processes and (per animal killed) are less likely to end up with e.g. no stunning, stunning but resuscitation before being killed, etc.

But this does have to be weighed against the stress of transport, and I bet in a lot of cases it'd have been better to have on-farm slaughter given the length & conditions of transport.

This is an interesting question. Even if the conditions were not fulfilled for almost all cases, I have not yet seen an answer to this question concerning ethical judgements in cases where these conditions are fulfilled.

When considering this question, the more general point is that the way that different animals are farmed should make some difference in ethical judgement. This post is about quantitative comparisons of suffering, but the differences in farming seem to be neglected. In particular, Brian Tomasik's table on which this post is based ranks different animals by "Equivalent days of suffering caused per kg demanded", but this comparison is strongly driven by column 5, "Suffering per day of life (beef cows = 1)":

"Column 5 represents my best-guess estimates for how bad life is per day for each of type of farm animal, relative to that animal's intrinsic ability to suffer. That is, differences in cognitive sophistication aren't part of these numbers because they're already counted in Column 4. Rather, Column 5 represents the "badness of quality of life" of the animals. For instance, since I think the suffering of hens in battery cages is perhaps 4 times as intense per day as the suffering of beef cows, I put a "1" in the beef-cow cell and "4" in the egg cell."

I don't mind using subjective estimates in such calculations, but note that this assumes that an average day in the life of all of these animals is a day of suffering. This may be the case in factory farming, but I doubt that that is a necessary assumption for alpine pasture. However, if life is good on an average day of a cow in alpine pasture, we would need a negative sign.

You can enter a negative sign in the table. However, you'll get an error message, because the whole table is based on the assumption that "Suffering per day of life" is positive. With this assumption, raising the "Average lifespan (days)" (Column 2) increases the "Equivalent days of suffering caused per kg demanded". If this is the case, then it is good that farmed animals are "killed at a fraction of their natural lifespans".

Moreover, Tomasik writes, "Column 6 is a best-guess estimate of the average pain of slaughter for each animal, expressed in terms of an equivalent number of days of regular life for that animal. For instance, I used "10" as an estimate for broiler chickens, which means I assume that on average, slaughter is as painful as 10 days of pre-slaughter life."

If the animals actually enjoy their life (negative number in column 5), you can still use that column by entering a negative number in column 6; these are the days an animal would forgo if it could avoid being slaughtered. So if we take the numbers in the table for beef and assume that column 5 is -1 (I don't know how to interpret this though, as this is all relative to beef cow suffering), we need to enter -395 in column 6 to get to zero in column 7.

I'd be interested if someone has a more general calculator.

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