Many Effective Altruists advocate vegetarianism or veganism. Eating and purchasing meat does increase the production of meat, so it contributes to animal suffering. However, in this post I will give some general reasons to eat meat, including factory farmed meat.
- If people see a movement full of people who don't eat meat, they are going to think that it is less appealing. Even though vegetarians and vegans insist that they enjoy their food, popular culture widely views vegan/vegetarian diets as restrictive and less enjoyable. Omnivores greatly desire meat, and therefore they are less likely to want to join the EA movement. Even though they theoretically could eat meat while being EAs, the implicit norms and moral standards are discouraging nonetheless.
- Some philosophers say that ethics should not be very demanding. Therefore, stringent restrictions on our diet are unreasonable. Some people say that any modern vegan diet is still healthier and tastier than what 90% of humanity has had to eat in the past. However, that doesn't change the fact that giving up meat feels like a very ascetic thing to me. I feel as though it would rob me of some of my identity and autonomy, as cooking meat is one of my hobbies. I haven't tried living as a vegetarian, but I'm quite sure that it would be a very stressful thing for me.
- Avoiding meat might not be a low-hanging fruit. Humans have a static, finite amount of willpower that we can spend on improving our lives in different ways, and we have to choose one thing at a time to fix. Forcing myself to give up meat might not be the most good I can do on the margin, if I could put the same effort into doing something else.
- We should not maximize our immediate impact on the world, instead we should think about long term productivity and commitment to EA. Eating meat could help my mental health. Some studies have shown an association between vegetarianism and mental health problems. I certainly enjoy eating meat, therefore it helps make me happier. This reduces the chance that I will burn out from the EA movement.
- Eating meat helps my job and social life, because most people don't think highly of vegetarians or vegans. If I'm networking with business associates or dining with my family, eating meat alongside them helps to reinforce our bonds and trust. If I insist on vegetarian food and restaurants with vegetarian options, then people will be less willing to bring me along for social events, which will hurt my social status and career aspirations.
- Ethics is not the only thing that matters for one's diet. I believe that we should split our diets, with one part being the altruistic part and the other part being the selfish part. I choose lunch as the altruistic part of my diet. Then breakfast and dinner are part of my selfish food budget, so it doesn't matter if I eat factory farmed meat at those times.
- There is no such thing as moral realism. Humans are selfish creatures who only follow their utility function. There is no objective moral reason to care about animals, we only avoid meat because our utility function sometimes says so. Eating factory-farmed meat frequently serves my utility function, so I do it.
- Meat has cultural and aesthetic value. I wouldn't want to live in a world without rare, juicy steaks and other culinary artistry. Sure, vegan food has some art and culture too, but it's poorer and sparser. The cultural value of meat is irreplaceable and unquantifiable.
With all these reasons, it's clear that eating meat is often a good thing to do. Should we then consider whether or not to eat meat at each meal? No, that would be too stressful. Who could possibly weigh and calculate what to pick for each meal? Instead, we should pick a proportion of our meals where we will avoid meat, and stick to that as a rule. I think that 10% is a good amount, it is a nice round number with some traditional precedent. Thus, I eat vegan food for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, which is 10% of my meals. Otherwise I stick to my usual diet, including factory-farmed meat.
"What is this nonsense?" some of you may be thinking. Well, this post is satire. Some of these reasons are good and some of them are bad, I'll let you figure out which is which. But all are reasons that I have seen EAs give to defend expenses on luxury items and ineffective charities. Yet some EAs also push a moral obligation for veganism. My point is this: it's inconsistent to have a rule for veganism and dismiss these sorts of complaints if you also have such a meek view of obligations to donate to charity. Of course two cases are never exactly analogous. But if anything, I'd say that the cost/benefit ratio of giving more to effective charity is better than the cost/benefit ratio of giving up meat. Therefore, for the purposes of improving our impact, either we should be vegan and donate scrupulously to charity or we should just donate scrupulously to charity. It's not the case that we should be vegan yet we don't need to donate scrupulously to charity.