May 17, 2015
I’m a vegetarian, but I currently eat eggs and dairy products. I’ve tried being vegan in the past, but I’ve never managed to keep it up for more than a few months - I always end up slipping out of it when it becomes too inconvenient (or, to be honest, when I just really want some cheese...)
I think there’s a good chance I should be a vegan, given my values and beliefs, and I feel kind of uncomfortable about the fact that I eat dairy and eggs. But I’ve never been totally convinced that the benefits of me being vegan are worth the cost to me - which, I think, is why I haven’t quite been able to sustain it. I feel like I’m stuck in this limbo where I’m not certain enough that I should be vegan to just do it, but I’m also not certain enough that I shouldn’t do it to feel happy with my choice to eat animal products.
So now I want to think this decision through more thoroughly - weigh all the different considerations, and make a considered decision one way or the other that I can be reasonably happy with. I thought I’d post an overview of what I think are the main considerations here to get feedback from others who may have thought about this more than me, and also because it might be helpful for other people thinking about similar decisions to see my thought process.
(This ended up pretty long. I tried to break it up into key sub-sections and summarise my main uncertainties at the end of each section so that it’s fairly skim-able.)
My main motivation for being vegan is that I care about animals, I believe they suffer, and I specifically believe that the way the meat/dairy/egg industry treats animals generally causes them to suffer a lot. I’m assuming that most people here will broadly agree with me on these points, so I’m not going to defend them here.
There’s a question of how my personal consumption habits affect the industry - by eating eggs and milk, to what extent am I directly causing animals in farms to suffer? If I were to stop eating eggs and milk, would doing so cause fewer animals to suffer? This gets us into some slightly complicated questions about the elasticity of demand in the dairy and egg industries.
According to Compassion By The Pound ( pd), for every egg you eat, you increase egg production by 0.91 - demand for eggs is highly elastic, which basically just means that my consumption habits can have a large effect on others’ consumption habits and broader production.
Demand for milk products is less elastic, but still significant - for every pound of milk you buy, you increase production by 0.56 pounds.
So for every egg I give up, I reduce egg production by 0.91, and for every pound of milk I give up, I reduce milk production by 0.56 pounds.
So it seems that whether I eat eggs and milk or not clearly has some effect on egg and dairy production. In order to understand this in terms of impact on animal welfare, though - which is what I really care about - we also need to understand how bad the quality of life for those cows and hens is.
At a certain point, we can approximately say that me buying fewer eggs will mean that one less chicken ends up having a horrible life on a factory farm (I don’t have the exact figures on this - I’ve heard that 2 eggs = 5 days for a hen on a factory farm - but would be interested if anyone has numbers & good evidence on this to hand). But what’s really crucial here - and what I think a lot of people don’t get intuitively - is that the alternative to that chicken being on a factory farm isn’t living a nice free life in some beautiful pastures. The alternative is that chicken not existing at all. When we farm animals for meat and for their dairy products, we bring animals into existence that would not have existed otherwise. Really, then, the important question isn’t, “Are these animals suffering?”, but “Are these animals suffering so much that they would be better off never having existed?”. This is a much more difficult question to answer, and ultimately involves a subjective judgement (as well as some messy ethical issues when you really get down to it, about whether it’s really a good thing to have millions of chickens exist whose lives are just barely worth living...)
Bailey Norwood, author of Compassion By the Pound, thinks that dairy cows have fairly decent lives: on a scale from -10 to 10, he places them at a 4. Egg-laying hens he’s a bit more uncertain about: in a cage-free system, he thinks hens lives are worth living (2 for a market animal, 3 for a breeder animal), but in a cage system, their lives may well be incredibly negative (-8 for a market animal, though still 3 for a breeder animal.) However, Brian Tomasik thinks these numbers are far too optimistic - especially for chickens - and that Norwood fails to account for the pain of slaughter and the length of their lives. It seems pretty likely to me that the lives of egg-laying hens in factory farms in the US are significantly negative, but I’m not certain of this.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that most of the considerations Norwood and Tomasik give are based on US factory farming conditions. I’m in the UK, and European regulations on the treatment of farm animals seem to be stricter, suggesting that they probably suffer less.
My very tentative conclusion based on all of this is that from a purely consequentialist perspective, there’s probably a pretty clear argument for me to give up eggs - because demand is fairly elastic and egg-laying hens probably have pretty bad lives. The consequentialist argument against eating dairy is much less convincing since it seems plausible that dairy cows have lives that are worth living (though I find it pretty hard to believe this when I hear emotive stories about calves being taken away from their mothers at birth...). Also, since one cow produces a large amount of milk, the number of cows that have to suffer to produce the small amount of dairy products I currently consume is probably pretty small - I haven’t worked out the numbers on this, though.
Main uncertainties here:
How bad are the lives of dairy cows and egg-laying hens in the EU - i.e. those that provide the milk & eggs I’m actually eating? If anyone has looked into this or knows of good sources of information I’d really appreciate suggestions.
Consequentialist considerations aren’t the only thing motivating me. To be honest, a huge part of my motivation comes from a strong emotional sense of “I don’t like this, and I don’t want to be part of it.” The more I think and learn about the industry that produces my milk and eggs, the more uncomfortable and upset I feel about it, and the more I feel that I want to completely disassociate myself from it.
I know this isn’t exactly in line with the EA mentality of using reason and evidence to determine the ethical choices we make. But I also don’t think we should completely ignore these kinds of emotions, and I think it’s ok to be motivated by them, as long as we’re not being entirely driven by our feelings at the expense of other strong considerations.
When I first tried being vegan, one of the key things that motivated and helped me was the fact that I was spending a lot of time around other vegans. By going vegan myself, therefore, there’s some chance I’ll encourage others to think more about their dietary choices and reduce their consumption of animal products. I’m never going to be a militant vegan who tries to persuade everyone else she meets to go meat-free - it’s just not my personality and I think it’s unlikely to be effective - but I’m happy to strike up non-confrontational conversations and discuss my reasons with people.
It’s unclear, though, whether being vegan really gives me much benefit here over being vegetarian. In fact, being vegan might even be worse because it seems to weird, and too unachievable for most people - whereas vegetarianism is something it’s easier for most people to get on board with.
Main uncertainties here:
To what extent will me being vegan lead others to consider their dietary choices more seriously compared to if I’m just vegetarian? Could it even be worse, if I seem too “weird” or “extreme” for people to seriously identify with?
The only real reason I have for not being vegan is that it’s somewhat inconvenient, takes some willpower, and requires me to put a bit more effort into planning and preparing meals. I also enjoy eating animal products, so there’s some cost there too. There are a few different things here, but I think they’re broadly the same issue, so I’m lumping them under the same heading.
I won’t go into lots of detail here (though happy to do so if people are interested), but being vegan has a few different costs to me in this area:
It makes it harder to eat out with other people, since many restaurants don’t offer vegan options.
I tend to cook and eat meals with my housemates (who aren’t vegan), which is a great way to save time and money, and also a nice sociable thing to do. Being vegan would make it a bit more difficult for me to do this, and I might end up eating alone more often.
Making sure I maintain a healthy vegan diet is likely to take more time and energy than being vegetarian - it requires more planning ahead, and probably more cooking (but not necessarily loads, and I’m generally quite happy cooking.)
Being vegan requires some willpower - I like eggs, cheese, ice cream etc. - and since most people around me aren’t vegan, that means I’m often offered or around these foods, so have to put effort into resisting them.
I enjoy eating animal products and get some pleasure out of them.
None of these are huge costs by any means, but they are costs. One argument that I hear from some vegans is that if you really care about animals, concerns about “inconvenience” and “enjoyment” should really be trivial - what is a minor inconvenience to you compared to a life of suffering for a chicken? While I’m somewhat sympathetic to this argument, I don’t think it’s quite this simple. If, for example, the effect my diet has on animal suffering is really small or very uncertain, but costs me a lot of willpower and/or time that could be spent on other altruistic activities, the benefit might plausibly not be worth the cost.
I broadly agree with Katja Grace that if one can use the time/energy/willpower etc. that one would spend being vegetarian/vegan more effectively towards other altruistic activities, then it probably makes sense not to be vegetarian/vegan. But in my personal case, I’m really not sure that the costs of veganism are fungible in this way - perhaps just because they really are relatively small. But I haven’t thought about this a lot, and it’s possible that I could find some way to use the time and/or willpower I’d expend being vegan in an even better way.
Main uncertainties here:
Is the willpower I’d be using to sustain a vegan diet something that could be actually be transferred to other things? Is this a possibility I should consider more seriously?
Though many people worry about the health risks of cutting out animal products, I actually think that on balance I’m probably healthier vegan. The healthiest components of my diet are mostly vegan anyway - most of my meals are some combination of vegetables, beans/pulses, tofu, and carbs. Where animal products come in is mostly unnecessary additions - some cheese on top of my pasta, some cheese in a sandwich that could easily be replaced by something else, a splash of milk in my tea, eggs for brunch on the weekend every now and then, and the odd baked good. In most of these cases, the animal product could either be cut out or replaced with something healthier - I’d just have pasta without cheese, I’d put more avocado in my sandwich. When I’m vegan, it gives me a great excuse not to eat various unhealthy things I tend to regret later anyway - cake, chocolate, cookies etc.
Of course, I need to make sure I get the right supplements and get a balanced diet - but I enjoy cooking, and naturally enjoy experimenting with variations on my diet for health, so I don’t imagine this would be too difficult. I could also totally be missing something really important here, so I’d love to hear if people think I’m not taking this consideration seriously enough.
I don’t think it necessarily have to be an all-or-nothing decision between either being fully vegan or not at all. I could probably get most of the benefits of being vegan by cutting out most of the animal products I eat and allowing myself these things occasionally when it’s particularly inconvenient or I have particularly low willpower for some good reason.
In theory this seems like it could work, but my main concern is that it’s much easier to stick to a very simple rule - “I’m a vegan” - than it is to stick to a vaguer one - “I’m 95% vegan.” Without clear rules for when the “exceptional” cases occur, it’s easy to just end up slipping into eating more and more animal products. It’s also harder to develop negative associations around animal products - which might help with sustaining motivation - if you’re eating them every now and then. I’ve tried doing something like this in the past - just eating dairy and eggs “occasionally”, and found that my definition “occasionally” just becomes more and more frequent...
One way to get around this might be to have very strict rules for when the 5% applies. For example, I’ve considered having the strict rule of being vegan in everything I buy and cook myself but allowing myself to eat animal products when I go out. My main concern with this still is that it’s easy to let those rules slip, or just to develop a stronger taste for eating those things if you’re still having them semi-regularly. Perhaps one way to get around this would be to have regular “check-in times” when you reassess whether you’ve been sticking to the rules you laid out, and make any tweaks or recommit to what you originally planned. Of course, all of this takes some time and energy, but it could well be worth it. Publicly committing to these rules, or telling a few other people about them, might also help me to ensure I stick to them.
I’d be particularly interested in hearing from others who do something like this - who are broadly vegetarian/vegan, but have strict rules for when exceptions can be made. What cases do your rules apply to? And how easy do you find it to stick to those rules?
I’m still pretty uncertain, and I’d love others’ thoughts. Essentially, I think that the costs to me of being vegan in terms of willpower/inconvenience etc. are sufficiently low that I could easily do it if I were pretty convinced that the positive consequences were pretty large - but they’re high enough that it’s not totally easy for me to do it otherwise. I think the main things that would help me get clearer on this would be:
If it turns out that I’m substantially underestimating the consequentialist benefits of me giving up milk and eggs - i.e. it makes much more difference, or the difference it makes, is much more certain than I think.
If it turns out there are other substantial benefits of me being vegan that I’m missing, or I’m underweighting other benefits like e.g. signalling benefits
At the moment, my best guess is that I should try doing something like “95% vegan” (in reality probably an even higher percentage), but setting some very strict, clearly defined rules for exceptions.