I feel pretty confused about whether I, as an effective altruist, should be vegetarian/vegan (henceforth abbreviated veg*n). I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explicitly talk about the arguments which feel most compelling to me, so I thought I’d do that here, in a low-effort way.
I think that factory farming is one of the worst ongoing moral atrocities. But most of the arguments I’ve heard for veg*nism, which I found compelling a few years ago, hinge on the effects that my personal consumption would have on decreasing factory farming (and sometimes on climate change). I now don’t find this line of thinking persuasive - my personal consumption decisions just have such a tiny effect compared to my career/donation decisions that it feels like I shouldn’t pay much attention to their direct consequences (beyond possibly donating to offset them).
But there are three other arguments which seem more compelling. First is a deontological argument: if you think something is a moral atrocity, you shouldn’t participate in it, even if you offset the effects of your contribution. In general, my utilitarian intuitions are much stronger than my deontological ones, but I do think that following deontological principles is often a very good heuristic for behaving morally. The underlying reason is that humans by default think more naturally in terms of black-and-white categories than shades of grey. As Yudkowsky writes:
Any rule that's not labeled "absolute, no exceptions" lacks weight in people's minds. So you have to perform that the "Don't kill" commandment is absolute and exceptionless (even though it totally isn't), because that's what it takes to get people to even hesitate. To stay their hands at least until the weight of duty is crushing them down. A rule that isn't even absolute? People just disregard that whenever.
Without strong rules in place it’s easy to reason our way into all sorts of behaviour. In particular, it’s easy to underestimate the actual level of harm that certain actions cause - e.g. thinking of the direct effects of eating meat but ignoring the effects of normalising eating meat, or normalising “not making personal sacrifices on the basis of moral arguments”, or things like that. And so implementing rules like “never participate in moral atrocities” sends a much more compelling signal than “only participate in moral atrocities when you think that’s net-positive”. That signal helps set an example for people around you - which seems particularly important if you spend time with people who are or will become influential. But it also strengthens your own self-identity as someone who prioritises the world going well.
Then there’s a community-level argument about what we want EA to look like. Norms about veg*nism within the community help build a high-trust environment (since veg*nism is a costly signal), and increase internal cohesion, especially between different cause areas. At the very least, these arguments justify not serving animal products at EA conferences.
Lastly, there’s an argument about how I (and the EA community) are seen by wider society. Will MacAskill sometimes uses the phrase “moral entrepreneurs”, which I think gestures in the right direction: we want to be ahead of the curve, identifying and building on important trends in advance. I expect that veg*nism will become much more mainstream than it currently is; insofar as EA is a disproportionately veg*n community, this will likely bolster our moral authority.
I think there are a few arguments cutting the other way, though. I think one key concern is that these arguments are kinda post-hoc. It’s not necessarily that they’re wrong, it’s more like: I originally privileged the hypothesis that veg*nism is a good idea based on arguments about personal impact which I now don’t buy. And so, now that I’m thinking more about it, I’ve found a bunch of arguments which support it - but I suspect I could construct similarly compelling arguments for the beneficial consequences of a dozen other personal life choices (related to climate change, social justice, capitalism, having children, prison reform, migration reform, drug reform, etc). In other words: maybe the world is large enough that we have to set a high threshold for deontological arguments, in order to avoid being swamped by moral commitments.
Secondly, on a community level, EA is the one group that is most focused on doing really large amounts of good. And so actually doing cost-benefit analyses to figure out that most personal consumption decisions aren’t worth worrying about seems like the type of thing we want to reinforce in our community. Perhaps what’s most important to protect is this laser-focus on doing the most good without trying to optimise too hard for the approval of the rest of society - because that's how we can keep our edge, and avoid dissolving into mainstream thinking.
Thirdly, the question of whether going veg*n strengthens your altruistic motivations is an empirical one which I feel pretty uncertain about. There may well be a moral licensing effect where veg*ns feel (disproportionately) like they’ve done their fair share of altruistic action; or maybe parts of you will become resentful about these constraints. This probably varies a lot for different people.
Fourthly, I am kinda worried about health effects, especially on short-to-medium-term energy levels. I think it’s the type of thing which could probably be sorted out after a bit of experimentation - but again, from my current perspective, the choice to dedicate that experimentation to maintaining my health instead of, say, becoming more productive feels like a decision I’d only make if I were privileging the intervention of veg*nism over other things I could spend my time and effort on.
I don’t really have any particular conclusion to this post; I wrote it mainly to cover a range of arguments that people might not have seen before, and also to try and give a demonstration of the type of reasoning I want to encourage in EA. (A quick search also turns up a post by Jess Whittlestone covering similar considerations.) If I had to give a recommendation, I think probably the dominant factor is how your motivational structure works, in particular whether you’ll interpret the additional moral constraint more as a positive reinforcement of your identity as an altruist, or more as something which drains or stresses you. (Note though that, since people systematically overestimate how altruistic they are, I expect that most people will underrate the value of the former. On the other hand, effective altruists are one of the populations most strongly selected for underrating the importance of avoiding the latter.)
FWIW, I've had similar thoughts: I used to think being veg*n was, in some sense, really morally important and not doing it would be really letting the side down. But, after doing it for a few years, I felt much less certain about it.*
To press though, what seems odd about the "the other things I do are so much more impactful, why should I even worry about this?" line is that it has an awkward whisper of self-importance and that it would license all sorts of other behaviours.
To draw this out with a slightly silly and not perfect analogy, imagine we hear a story about some medieval king who sometimes, but not always, kicked people and animals that got in his way. When asked by some brave lackey, "m'lord, but why do you kick them; surely there is no need?" The king replies (imagine a booming voice for best effect) "I am very important and do much good work. Given this, whether I kick or not kick is truly a rounding error, a trifle, on my efforts and I do not propose to pay attention to these consequences".
I think that we might grant that what the king says is true - kicking things is genuinely a very small negative compared to the large positive of his other actions. Howeve... (read more)
This comment captures a lot of my concerns about offsetting arguments in the context of veganism, as well as more generally. Spelled out a bit more, my worry for EAs is that we often:
1.Think we ought to donate a large amount
Actually donate some amount that is much smaller than this but much larger than most people
Discourage each other from sanctioning people who are donating much more than other people, for not donating enough
Offsetting bad acts can presumably fall into the same pool as other donations, which leads to the following issue:
let’s say that Jerry goes around kicking strangers, and also donates 20% of his income to charity, and let’s also stipulate that Jerry really thinks he ought to donate 80% of his income to charity, and that 10% of his income is enough to offset his stranger kicking. Now you might be tempted to criticize Jerry for kicking strangers, but hold on, 10 percentage points of his donations cancel out this stranger kicking, would we be criticizing Jerry for only donating 10% of his income to charity? If not, it seems we cannot criticize Jerry. But wait a minute, later we learn that Jerry actually would have donated 30% of his income to charity if h... (read more)
Right. The problem with offsetting is that rather than (1) doing something bad (eg kicking (medieval) peasants) and then (2) offsetting it somehow (eg by donating money), the better outcome is where you do (2), ie the offset and then just don't do the bad thing at all.
Someone might claim they won't do (2) unless they do (1), and therefore the better outcome is that they do both (1) and (2) rather than neither (1) or (2). But this is deeply suspicious and suggests a very contorted psychology. ("Funny thing is that if I don't kick the peasant, I just can make myself donate, actually. Soooo, are you going to line him up for me or shall I do it?")
Amanda Askell, Tyler John, and Hayden Wilkinson have an excellent paper on offsetting but I don't think it's public. Here's a link to some earlier work by Amanda that was all I could find after a quick google.
… except that not kicking people also saves time, whereas entirely avoiding animal products often involves significant hassle and time cost?
I suspect there are examples of things EAs do out of consideration for other humans that are just as costly, and they justify them on the grounds that this comes out of their "fuzzies" budget. e.g. Investing in serious romantic or familial relationships. I'm personally rather skeptical that I would spend any time and money saved by being non-vegan on altruistically important things, even if I wanted to. (Plus there is Nikola's point that if you already do care a lot about animals, the emotional cost of acting in a way that financially supports factory farming could be nontrivial.)
I agree with your comment and love the story! Re your welfaretarian argument, how do you measure the happiness of the animals if you didn’t grow them yourself? Also, can a life be happy if you are ultimately killed before your time has come? I’m not judging, just curious about this concept as I haven’t heard of this.
Copying a comment I once wrote:
eating veg sits somewhere between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities" in terms of expected impact, and I'm not sure where to draw the line between "altruistic actions that seem way too costly and should be discouraged" and "altruistic actions that seem a reasonable early step in one's EA journey and should be encouraged"
Intuitively and anecdotally (and based on some likely-crappy papers), it seems harder to see animals as sentient beings or think correctly about the badness of factory farming while eating meat; this form of motivated reasoning plausibly distorts most people's epistemics, and this is about a pretty important part of the world, and recognizing the badness of factory farming has minor implications for s-risks and other AI stuff
I am very confused by this statement. I feel like we've generally universally agreed that we don't really encourage people as a community to take altruistic actions if we don't really think it competes with the best alternatives that person has. Almost all altruistic interventions lie between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities", and indeed, we encourage ~0% of that range for participants of the EA community. So just based on that observation, our prior should clearly also tend towards being unopinionated on this topic.
On this principle, why would the answer here be different than our answer on whether you should locate your company in a place with higher-tax burden because it sets a good example of cooperating on global governance? Or whether to buy products that are the result of exploitative working... (read more)
Yeah, the "avoid interncontinental flights" was intended as something clearly ineffective that people still do – i.e. as an example of something that seems way too costly and should be discouraged. So I fully agree with you we should encourage ~0% of that range for EAs.
My point is that avoiding animal products is substantially more cost-effective than those interventions, but I'm still not sure whether it meets the threshold for EA activity, but it might. It's been a while since I looked into the exact numbers, but I think you can avert substantial time spent by animals on factory farms by avoiding animal products, and that seems a lot better than the other examples you gave, and perhaps better than donating to effective global health charities.
I think underweighting the interests of animals and future beings with similar cognitive capacities is more likely to cause you to end up working on the wrong interventions or causes than is being roughly uniformly slightly less productive because you spend more time on veg food, and the risk of working on the wrong things could be more important than the small loss of productivity. Differences between interventions and causes can be pretty large. However, this isn't obvious, and it could go the other way. And maybe going veg*n causes someone to underweight the far future or the less measurable relative to the near term or more measurable.
I don't think your third paragraph describes what I think / feel. It's more the other way around: I used to eat a lot of meat, and once I stopped doing that, I started seeing animals with different eyes (treating them as morally relevant, and internalizing that a lot more). The reason why I don't eat meat now is not that I think it would cause value drift, but that it would make me deeply sad and upset – eating meat would feel similar to owning slaves that I treat poorly, or watching a gladiator fight for my own amusement. It just feels deeply morally wrong and isn't enjoyable anymore. The fact that the consequences are only mildly negative in the grand scheme of things doesn't change that. So I'm actually not sure if my argument supports me remaining a vegan now, but I think it's a strong argument for me to go vegan in the first place at some point.
My guess is that a lot of people don't actually see animals as sentient beings whose emotions and feelings matter a great deal, but more like cute things to have fun with. And anecdotally, how someone perceives animals seems to be determined by whether they eat them, not the other way around. (Insert plausible explanation – cognitive dissonance, rationalizations, etc.) I think squashing dust mites, drinking milk, eating eggs etc. seems to have a much less strong effect in comparison to eating meat, presumably because they're less visceral, more indirect/accidental ways of hurting animals.
I'm still not very convinced of your original point, though -- when I simulate myself becoming non-vegan, I don't imagine this counterfactually causing me to lose my concern for animals (nor does it seem like it would harm my epistemics? Though not sure if I trust my inner sim here. It does seem like that, if anything, going non-vegan would help my epistemics, since, in my case, being vegan wastes enough time such that it is harmful for future generations to be vegan, and by continuing to be vegan I am choosing to ignore that fact).
I'm quite baffled by the argument that, because giving to charity or changing career can do more good than dietary change, this then means it's permissible or even advisable to avoid dietary change. Relative values are entirely irrelevant. In my opinion the absolute consequentialist value of being ve*an is still considerable, and it is this absolute value that ultimately matters.
Usually we think of saving one human life, or saving one life from severe suffering, to be an incredibly valuable thing to do - and it is. Why shouldn't this be the case for farm animals? Going ve*an will impact far more than just one animal's life anyway - Brian Tomasik estimates that “avoiding eating one chicken or fish roughly translates to one less chicken or fish raised and killed”. It's also worth noting that over 99% of farm animals in the USA live on factory farms.
There are strong consequentialist reasons for going ve*an other than the direct effects on the animals we eat which are well-covered here. One of the most important in my opinion is that you can influence others to change their diet and generally spread concern for animals and expand our moral circle. We need a society that stops seeing an... (read more)
They seem relevant because willpower and attention budgets are limited, and our altruism-directed activities (and habits, etc.) draw from those budgets.
I concede that this argument goes through probabilistically, but I feel like people overestimate its effect.
Almost none of the non-vegetarian EAs would want to lock in animal suffering for the long-term future, so the argument that personal veg*ism makes a difference on s-risks is a bit conjunctive. It seems to rely on the hidden premise that humans will attain control over the future, but EA values will die out or only have a negligible effect. That's possible, but it doesn't rank among the scenarios I'd consider likely.
I think the trajectory of civilization will gravitate toward one of two attractors: (1) People's "v... (read more)
In general, I don't think that relative values are irrelevant. Speaking in entirely abstract terms, if the value of doing one thing A is extremely much higher than that of doing another thing B, and both A and B are somewhat costly, then it might be reasonable not to do B and focus your mental energy on doing A well. It seems to me that EAs are using such reasoning in other circumstances.
Of course, what to do in any specific case depends on the empirics of that case. This is just to say that relative values aren't generally irrelevant.
Seems like there are clear time/money costs? As a simple example, if you get coffee from Starbucks every day, switching from regular milk to plant-based milk for coffee could cost $0.50 per day -- maybe you'd do better by saving that $0.50 and donating an extra $100 every year.
A lot of the arguments for this are ones that I would have suggested anyway so I won't speak to that much other than to say that I broadly agree.
Two main things where I think I can add value:
... (read more)
- Often our decisions aren't mutually exclusive and looking through a single 'impact' lens can be a bit myopic and counterproductive. Most of the time going veg*n has virtually zero negative tradeoff with other impact decisions for me, it doesn't make it harder to work on important issues nor does it get in the way of donations. Most of the time there are 'buckets' of resources/decisions that we have that don't trade off against each other. Where externalities exist with eating animals for me they have mostly been positive (e.g. commitment, compassion, authenticity, credibility etc etc). This differs from person to person. For example, I've drawn the line at being something in between a vegan and vegetarian diet (and have allowed for the occasional bivalve). This is similar to donations, sure, someone could have a huge impact (in expectation) if they do some form of direct work, but even after they spend on increasing their own impact they'll probably have budget to do a heck of a lot of go
My experience is similar to Luke's.
One of the main benefits of becoming vegan was that it removed a cognitive dissonance from my life -- a sadness at the back of my head because my actions had been different from my values. After becoming vegan, my lifestyle and my convictions were more aligned. This was quite a liberating and joyful feeling.
I think that becoming vegan should be a win-win decision. If a vegan diet feels like a burden, or distracts from more important issues, or causes health problems, then by all means stop and eat whatever you like. But chances are that, after a while, you become a happier and healthier person.
My last bit of advice is to not be too dogmatic about veganism. The animal industry is surprisingly elastic*, and so each egg not bought will reduce demand and cause some fraction of a statistical chicken to not be born and not suffer. You don't have to be 100% vegan to have an impact ;-)
* I wish I'd have good numbers to back this claim...
An important consideration that seems missing here is the increased search cost for other people trying to provide food for you, and the increased complexity of trying to coordinate on food for a large group of people, given a much more limited dietary range.
In my experience, organizing events for EAs is easily 25% more difficult than organizing it for any other group I've organized events for, just due to the wide range of dietary preferences that is represented by people, and the reliable problems that show up if you try to somehow make vegan catering work . These problems have probably been around 30% of the stress that I've experienced in organizing events over the past 7 years, and I've consistently seen other organizers spend a substantial chunk of their organizing time trying to solve catering problems that I don't really think are a problem for most other communities.
In my personal life, I've also found it quite difficult to spontaneously decide to eat out, while still reliable filling dietary preferences, especially if the diet is further restricted by some food allergies, so the amount of eating out I've done with EAs is also a good bit lower because of the high prevalence of various dietary preferences.
These tradeoffs might be worth it (though I am not currently particularly sold), but it's a tradeoff that I've rarely seen acknowledged, and that has made me sad (as someone who has spent a substantial chunk of the last 8 years of their life organizing EA events).
This does seem like a downside. Is it also a significant downside on the margin? I imagine (and have a little experience suggesting that) most of the logistical costs are in finding any good veg*n options for the event (rather than in scaling an order). That seems to suggest that, even if (say) 70% of veg*ns in the community started eating meat, that would only cut a minority of these costs. So this marginal cost of veg*nism may be smaller than it initially appears.
It seems kinda wild if this is the dominating factor. The number of meals provided through the year to a veg*n by other people is so, so much smaller than the number of meals that the veg*n provides for themselves. Both the veg*n and the large event organizers get "economies of scale".
(There's a different frame where costs on others should be more highly weighted than costs on oneself. I mostly don't buy this frame when we're talking about cost-benefit analysis of whether to be veg*n in the first place, for someone who is trying to use their time and money to do good in the world.)
(The tradeoff could still not be worth it, but then I think it would be even more not worth it considering just the cost to the veg*n themselves.)
Note: I personally avoid increasing search costs but that's just because it seems like an easy win on the margin. (Though it doesn't apply to meat, because as a lifelong vegetarian I basically don't parse meat as food, and after having tried it once, I would rather skip the meal than have a meat-based meal.)
Psychological/epistemic consequences seem like another potentially big part of this choice that isn't discussed often (e.g., I haven't checked it, but this Wikipedia article summarizes experiments which seem to suggest that eating meat changes people's ethical and empirical beliefs about animals).
I think the arguments that most animal products are bad at all in expectation to consume based on short term effects are weak, given the very uncertain effects on wild animals. Abstaining from some may mean replacing support for an active moral atrocity with a moral atrocity by omission (wild animal suffering).
The arguments are strongest (even if not very persuasive, as you note) against consuming chicken meat and eggs, farmed insects and maybe herbivorous farmed aquatic animals (other than bivalves), because of the higher density of direct suffering relative to externalities compared to other animal products.
So, if you're looking for something relatively flexible and without having to experiment with your health (much), maybe just omit these from your diet?
Abstaining from some but not all animals seems maybe to cut against Richard's points about the value of Schilling fences/quasi-deontological commitments against eating all animals.
On the other hard, I (and many other EAs I'm sure) develop moral identities as people who are capable of nuance and careful consequentialism on moral tradeoffs, so maybe having a very nuanced position on restrictions can help enforce this.
Personally I've been lactovegetarian for some years, with an exception for bivalves. I'm considering adding beef back to my diet for reasons raised above, but am unsure about both the object-level stance and also whether it's worth investing any more thought into this (relatively nonconsequential in the grand scheme of things) decision.
You may have already seen this, but Brian considers some of the evidence here.
A concern is that people usually become vegetarians or vegans because the case for it seems pretty straightforward and robust, similar to the case for not participating in other activities that clearly and directly harm others. But if this is no longer the primary justification, it seems like there is no special reason for singling out dietary change for this kind of in-depth scrutiny, relative to other things that people do in the course of a day (such as walking, driving, sleeping, talking, etc.). So yeah, ignoring the effects of eating on wild animals is unprincipled, but so is ignoring the effects of any of these activities on different types of sentient beings. It seems that research effort devoted to exploring these different effects should be allocated according to explicit cost-effectiveness considerations or reliable heuristics, when in fact it looks like as EAs we are "privileging the dietary hypothesis" for contingent historical reasons.
If you think the signalling benefits from being veg*n are large, then it seems plausible to me that the signalling benefits from being a "scope-sensitive" or "evidence-sensitive" veg*n are larger, at least depending on your background culture and how high-bandwidth of a message you can send.
My family didn't ask any questions when I became vegetarian (lots of their friends are vegetarian), but the fact that I still eat oysters causes no end of questions. This leads to conversations about different types of animal sentience that feel more like they're actually about our treatment of animals than would have happened if I were a "normal" vegetarian.
I've had less opportunity to see the effects firsthand, but I think being averse to foods in rough proportion to their suffering per calorie, e.g. eating beef but avoiding eggs (and talking about why you do this, when asked) might have a similar result.
[This isn't to argue that the signalling benefits outweigh the direct harm.]
As in human ethics, the perspective of the victims cuts through this topic pretty cleanly for me.
As a thought experiment, imagine writing an article considering these sorts of nuances re: a human ethics topic where individuals are needlessly being harmed & killed for the pleasure of others.
I agree with Luke that, for me at least, becoming veg*n has not detracted from my health or how I spend my time at all.
In addition to the deontological argument, you could also consider a virtue ethics approach - thinking about the overall life pattern rather than discrete decisions. You care a lot about the suffering of animals. The virtue approach might ask:
"How should someone who cares a lot about the suffering of animals live their daily life?"
I find encouragement in the feeling that I am living more in harmony with my ethical beliefs, and that feeling goes beyond the results of the ethical calculus behind each discrete decision.
Realizing I'm coming in late and many of my points have doubtlessly been addressed by other commenters, here are five thoughts:
... (read more)
- This reminds me of Eliezer Yudkowsky's 2015 criticism of using vague flow-through effects, with animal welfare cited specifically. He noted that at the extremes, it seems like the sort of warm-glow reasoning someone might use to justify donating to your local performing arts center or running the 5k Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure - both of which are perfectly fine things to do, but not traditionally seen as EA, so much as indulging in causes you may be personally passionate about on the side. I don't agree with him that we should never consider possible flow-though effects if they seem exceptionally plausible and intuitive, and we're explicit about just how much value we expect will come from them. But my sense is that the indirect social signaling, health, and productivity effects of dietary choices are either a wash, or not something we can accurately predict (much less generalize) with the level of rigor EA typically expects. For example, maybe reduce-atarianism and a carbon tax actually have better flow-through effects, whereas inspiring m
Don't forget the benefits of normalising vegetarianism/veganism for the people around you. This makes the impact of being vegetarian/vegan bigger than just the number of chickens you don't eat.
My sister has been vegetarian since she was 6 and has passively inspired many of the rest of our family to either become vegetarian/vegan or at least reduce our meat consumption. I have in turn inspired other people to make changes. My sister's impact is much more than just the animals she hasn't eaten.
I think we tend to forget that large-scale social changes result from lots of people making "insignificant" individual choices which gently pressure others to change. It's a snowball effect that is hard to measure and predict, so it's easy to feel like our personal choices don't matter.
I generally see my own vegetarianism as a utilitarian virtue that I've cultivated. It feels mostly costless to me now; in fact I feel better doing it than not. I think we should generally try to cultivate such virtues that align with impactful action, but also agree that going veg*n may not be equally effective on the margin for everyone (for a variety of reasons). Still, I'd feel most proud of being in a movement where people didn't simply accept the psychological costs of some altruistic action, but tried to align their personal utility function more wit... (read more)
On a community level, even while I'm not vegan, I've long appreciated the norm of having community events be vegan. I want to be vegan but it's hard. At such events, it's easy, it's a nice on-ramp to the idea that I might someday actually be vegan.
That said, I think it makes sense to avoid being too prescriptive about what other people should do? Like, I think I prefer the community where your eating habits are a personal choice, versus the community where you might be ostracized if you eat the wrong thing.
I have a bit of resonance on this front -- I think veganism gives me altruistic momentum on the good days. On bad days, I think I can tell it takes it instead (usually I just opt not to eat vegan on such days). I think the "bad days" are currently my biggest blocker to 100% veganism.
I think this problem is solved if you cook for yourself or are willing to eat the same thing every meal, and is extremely unsolved if you don't like cooking and crave variety. This feels like the biggest societal blocker to veganism.
Good points, thanks for writing them up. Maybe also worth considering:
The research I've read from EAs* on slavery(here, here) actually shifted me somewhat against personal dietary moral commitments as an important route to change.
Basically, it seems like the equivalent to veganism (fully abstaining from buying anything as a result of slave-produced labor) never really took off, despite substantial effort from activists, whereas technological shifts that made slavery less profitable(?) and systematic policy changes on the level of "the slave trade is immoral, let's ban it" were much more influential in comparison.
*For better or worse, I've never prioritized enough time to read the primary sources
Skimming the article from Mauricio, I spotted another possible argument for exchanging as much meat products as possible for plant-based alternatives.
The more and sooner business interests are okay with stronger animal welfare protection because they already are heavily invested in plant-based alternatives, the less resistance systemic changes will face in the future.
I think that it's relevant that, for some veg*ns, it would take more energy (emotional energy/willpower) not to be veg*n. For instance, having seen some documentaries, I am repulsed by the idea of eating meat due to the sheer emotional force of participating in the atrocities I saw. Maybe this is an indicator that I should spend more time trying to align my emotions to my ethical beliefs (which would, without the strong emotional force, point towards me eating animal products to save energy), but I'm not sure if that's worth the effort.
Maybe this implies that we shouldn't recommend documentaries on animal farming to EAs because it would lead to emotional bias against eating animal products? But I'm pretty sure seeing those documentaries expanded my moral circle in a very good way.
I’ve written about this topic in “Levels of Moral Cooperation.”... (read more)
Insofar as we are all imperfect and have to figure out which ways to prioritize improving on, it isn't obvious that we should treat veganism as a priority. That said, I think there is an important difference between what it makes sense to do and how it makes sense to feel. It makes sense to feel horrified by factory farming and disgusted by factory farmed meat if you care about the suffering of animals. It makes sense to respond to suffering inflicted on your behalf with sadness and regret.
Effective altruists should generally be vegan, not (just) because ... (read more)
An argument against that doesn't seem directly considered here: veganism might turn some high-potential people off without compensatory benefits, and very high base rates of non-veganism (~99% of western people are non-vegan IIRC) means this may matter even on relatively marginal effects.
Obviously many things can be mitigated significantly by being kind/accommodating (though at some level there's a little remaining implied "you are doing bad"). But even accounting for that, a few things remain despite accommodating. E.g.
Effective altruists talk a lot about cooperation but I actually think its sort of pathologically uncooperative to eat meat. It seems pretty hard to dismiss the arguments for veganism. Lots of provably well informed EAs (in the sense they could score well on a test of EA knowledge) are going to settle on 'dont personally participate in enormous moral outrages'. Why would you personally make the problem worse? And make the social situation worse for vegan EAs. It's a very serious breach of solidarity. (Though maybe using the term solidarity outs me as a leftie)
Peter Singer's 1980 paper Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism might answer your concerns. Here's a relevant quote from the conclusion of his paper:
"I advocate vegetarianism as something which "underpins, makes consistent, and gives meaning to all our other activities on behalf of animals" (Animal Liberation, p. I71). I remain convinced that for those concerned to change the situation of animals in our society, vegetarianism is of real practical importance. It provides an irrefutable answer to the oft-repeated claim that we need factory farms to feed our growing population. It allows the animal welfare campaigner to defeat ad hominem attacks, for instance: 'How can you object to killing seals when you eat pigs and calves?' By eliminating one's personal involvement in the production of animals for food, it makes it easier to take a detached view of the animal industry, and to avoid compromising the interests of the animals with one's own interest as a consumer of animals. Calling on the public not to buy the produce of factory farms can be an important part of a campaign against factory farming. It holds out a threatening prospect to farmers-one which is beginning to be noticed in... (read more)
For me, having been a strict vegetarian since primary school, I'd have to consider the inverse question: As an EA, should I start eating meat?
Eating meat seems to involve a lot of hassle. I'd have to learn a lot about different types of meat, where to buy them, how to prepare them, figure out what I like and so on. Right now, I just don't perceive meat as food, and the thought of eating it feels kind of gross because of the killing and mess involved.
I would lose a bit of status among my green friends, and people would perceive me as morally inconsistent.
On... (read more)
A lot of omnivores don't know all these things! Many people eat meat at restaurants, or buy it pre-cooked, or are served it by friends and family, and basically only eat a very small number of types (e.g. chicken + beef). A simple rule like 'cooked chicken is probably fine' is likely to dramatically expand your culinary options..
This is not to say that the other arguments (ethical + personal) against might not be significant or even decisive. But I would be very surprised if the issue was sufficiently finely balanced that the knowledge required to eat meat ended up making the difference.
Thanks for writing this! Epistemic note: I am engaging in highly motivated reasoning and arguing for veg*n.
... (read more)
- As BenStewart mentioned, virtue ethics seems relevant. I would similarly point to Kant’s moral imperative of universalizability: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Not engaging in moral atrocities is a case where we should follow such an ideal in my opinion. We should at least consider the implications under moral uncertainty and worldview diversification.
- My journey in EA has in large part been a journey of “aligning my life and my choices to my values,” or trying to lead a more ethical life. To this end, it is fairly clear that being veg*n is the ethical thing to do relative to eating animal products (I would note I’m somewhere between vegan and vegetarian, and I think moving toward veganism is ethically better).
- The signaling effect of being veg*n seems huge at both an individual and community level. As Luke Freeman mentioned, it would be hard to take EA seriously if we were less veg*n than average. Personally, I would likely not be in EA if being veg*n wasn’t relatively normal. This
Links are all borked, they've still got your Blogger previews.
Related to this is this study finding:... (read more)
I've been mostly (~98%) vegan since 2013. This concern really surprised me, because the health benefits of eating plant based are clearly extraordinary in my view. It was actually the primary driver for me going from vegetarian to vegan, with concern for the farmed animals growing later.
I would say that the very short term effects (1-2 weeks) can be disruptive as the bacteria in your gut become re-selected from bacteria that feed on meat or dairy to ones... (read more)
It seems like many of the disagreements in the comments comes from disagreements about the moral status of animals.
In an expected value calculation, it is fine to offset greenhouse gas emissions with true counterfactual offsets because there isn't a clear case of one moral actor causing harm to a moral patient, and the harm can be completely compensated for. But most people would object to the idea of killing someone, selling their organs on the black market, and then donating the money to prevent other people from dying from easily preventable disea... (read more)
What are some plausible stories for how being vegan makes the far-future non-trivially better? My bar here is something like "me being vegan is 1/1000th as impactful as working on a biosecurity project for my entire career," so e.g. I claim that being vegan wastes something like 0.1% of EA's time (which is an underestimate for me at least -- I often spend 10s of counterfactual minutes searching for meatless food; for reference, 1/1000th of waking hours for seven days is about seven minutes).
Is this story the reason you are vegan?
Getting people to eat more beef/dairy and less chicken/fish is one animal welfare strategy that EAs should consider promoting. Since cows are large, it takes fewer animals to produce a single unit of food. Brian Tomasik compiled this list of the amount of suffering generated by different animal foods, and beef/dairy are ranked the lowest. Vitalik Buterin has argued that eating only cow products may be 99% as good as veganism. In addition to this, getting people to eat only beef/dairy may have more mass appeal. Few people are willing to become vegan, but fa... (read more)
I think to a first approximation eating fish and chicken is much worse than eating beef - the CO2 from the beef equivalent to replacing one chicken or fish is unlikely to lead to anywhere near the suffering the chicken or fish experience. 1kg of beef (approx weight of one chicken or fish) ~100kg CO2e; 100GtC extra emissions would have to do damage equivalent to 1 trillion units of factory farmed chicken / fish lives worth of suffering for it to be comparable. This doesn't seem likely to me (but I guess it plausibly could be if you think that worst case climate scenarios are likely and the damage lasts 100s or 1000s of years).
I've thought about a lot of this stuff too, so I understand how the value can seem uncertain. These are some reasons I became [more] vegan.
1. I don't participate in factory farming suffering - any good impact is good to me, a penny saved is a penny earned. Even a small impact matters to me.
2. I avoid taking lives
3. I feel better - probably because of eating healthier and maybe also more in control of my decisions. A mostly or entirely vegan diet might also just be healthier for some reason. Chimps and Bonobos are our closest relatives and... (read more)
On the signaling value of vegetarianism/veganism, this recent post by Holly Elmore is relevant:... (read more)
Hi Richard, I recently wrote a post that tackles the concern on whether personal choice on veganism can have meaningful consequences: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/aMFFWhiQX5DvaZSDp/the-tipping-point-case-for-vegan-advocacy
Short answer, yes. Personal choices can help shift the S-curve for the transition, which has huge consequences.
I find the argument for veg*nism based on expected value fairly compelling. In a developed nation, factory farming is dominant. In a factory farm, it seems like ~all animals have net negative lives. Not eating animal products reduces demand for those animal products, leading to less animals with net negative lives being raised on factory farms.
You say that this value isn't very big, and perhaps it isn't. But neither is the cost? Veg*n food in my experience is as healthy, potentially cheaper, and similarly effortful to make as home-cooked non-veg*n fo... (read more)
Side note: a Cohen's d of .31 is not small. My opinion is that the rules of thumb used to interpret effect sizes in psychology are messed up, because so much p-hacking in the past produced way overinflated effect sizes. Regardless, 0.3 is typically seen as a moderate effect size. A 0.3 standard deviation increase in IQ would be 4.5 points which would lead to economically meaningful differences in income.
Thank you for the great post! I wrote a reply that is too long for here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/AZyJdher64htcpKti/re-some-thoughts-on-vegetarianism-and-veganism
This isn't an argument against veganism; it's an argument against prioritizing veganism as a cause area. And EA isn't prioritizing veganism as far as I can tell?
I worry it could be really easy for EA to become a community where people rationalize doing bad things on account of the fact that those things are just a little bit bad compared to all the good things they do.
I really don't want EA to become that.