When should an Effective Altruist be vegetarian?



Crossposted from Meteuphoric

I have lately noticed several people wondering why more Effective Altruists are not vegetarians. I am personally not a vegetarian because I don't think it is an effective way to be altruistic.

As far as I can tell the fact that many EAs are not vegetarians is surprising to some because they think 'animals are probably morally relevant' basically implies 'we shouldn't eat animals'. To my ear, this sounds about as absurd as if Givewell's explanation of their recommendation of SCI stopped after 'the developing world exists, or at least has a high probability of doing so'.

(By the way, I do get to a calculation at the bottom, after some speculation about why the calculation I think is appropriate is unlike what I take others' implicit calculations to be. Feel free to just scroll down and look at it).

I think this fairly large difference between my and many vegetarians' guesses at the value of vegetarianism arises because they think the relevant question is whether the suffering to the animal is worse than the pleasure to themselves at eating the animal. This question sounds superficially plausibly relevant, but I think on closer consideration you will agree that it is the wrong question.

The real question is not whether the cost to you is small, but whether you could do more good for the same small cost.

Similarly, when deciding whether to donate $5 to a random charity, the question is whether you could do more good by donating the money to the most effective charity you know of. Going vegetarian because it relieves the animals more than it hurts you is the equivalent of donating to a random developing world charity because it relieves the suffering of an impoverished child more than foregoing $5 increases your suffering.

Trading with inconvenience and displeasure

My imaginary vegetarian debate partner objects to this on grounds that vegetarianism is different from donating to ineffective charities, because to be a vegetarian you are spending effort and enjoying your life less rather than spending money, and you can't really reallocate that inconvenience and displeasure to, say, preventing artificial intelligence disaster or feeding the hungry, if don't use it on reading food labels and eating tofu. If I were to go ahead and eat the sausage instead - the concern goes - probably I would just go on with the rest of my life exactly the same, and a bunch of farm animals somewhere would be the worse for it, and I scarcely better.

I agree that if the meat eating decision were separated from everything else in this way, then the decision really would be about your welfare vs. the animal's welfare, and you should probably eat the tofu.

However whether you can trade being vegetarian for more effective sacrifices is largely a question of whether you choose to do so. And if vegetarianism is not the most effective way to inconvenience yourself, then it is clear that you should choose to do so. If you eat meat now in exchange for suffering some more effective annoyance at another time, you and the world can be better off.

Imagine an EA friend says to you that she gives substantial money to whatever random charity has put a tin in whatever shop she is in, because it's better than the donuts and new dresses she would buy otherwise. She doesn't see how not giving the money to the random charity would really cause her to give it to a better charity - empirically she would spend it on luxuries. What do you say to this?

If she were my friend, I might point out that the money isn't meant to magically move somewhere better - she may have to consciously direct it there. She might need to write down how much she was going to give to the random charity, then look at the note later for instance. Or she might do well to decide once and for all how much to give to charity and how much to spend on herself, and then stick to that. As an aside, I might also feel that she was using the term 'Effective Altruist' kind of broadly.

I see vegetarianism for the sake of not managing to trade inconveniences as quite similar. And in both cases you risk spending your life doing suboptimal things every time a suboptimal altruistic opportunity has a chance to steal resources from what would be your personal purse. This seems like something that your personal and altruistic values should cooperate in avoiding.

It is likely too expensive to keep track of an elaborate trading system, but you should at least be able to make reasonable long term arrangements. For instance, if instead of eating vegetarian you ate a bit frugally and saved and donated a few dollars per meal, you would probably do more good (see calculations lower in this post). So if frugal eating were similarly annoying, it would be better. Eating frugally is inconvenient in very similar ways to vegetarianism, so is a particularly plausible trade if you are skeptical that such trades can be made. I claim you could make very different trades though, for instance foregoing the pleasure of an extra five minute's break and working instead sometimes. Or you could decide once and for all how much annoyance to have, and then choose most worthwhile bits of annoyance, or put a dollar value on your own time and suffering and try to be consistent.

Nebulous life-worsening costs of vegetarianism

There is a separate psychological question which is often mixed up with the above issue. That is, whether making your life marginally less gratifying and more annoying in small ways will make you sufficiently less productive to undermine the good done by your sacrifice. This is not about whether you will do something a bit costly another time for the sake of altruism, but whether just spending your attention and happiness on vegetarianism will harm your other efforts to do good, and cause more harm than good.

I find this plausible in many cases, but I expect it to vary a lot by person. My mother seems to think it's basically free to eat supplements, whereas to me every additional daily routine seems to encumber my life and require me to spend disproportionately more time thinking about unimportant things. Some people find it hard to concentrate when unhappy, others don't. Some people struggle to feed themselves adequately at all, while others actively enjoy preparing food.

There are offsetting positives from vegetarianism which also vary across people. For instance there is the pleasure of self-sacrifice, the joy of being part of a proud and moralizing minority, and the absence of the horror of eating other beings. There are also perhaps health benefits, which probably don't vary that much by people, but people do vary in how big they think the health benefits are.

Another  way you might accidentally lose more value than you save is in spending little bits of time which are hard to measure or notice. For instance, vegetarianism means spending a bit more time searching for vegetarian alternatives, researching nutrition, buying supplements, writing emails back to people who invite you to dinner explaining your dietary restrictions, etc. The value of different people's time varies a lot, as does the extent to which an additional vegetarianism routine would tend to eat their time.

On a less psychological note, the potential drop in IQ (~5 points?!) from missing out on creatine is a particularly terrible example of vegetarianism making people less productive. Now that we know about creatine and can supplement it, creatine itself is not such an issue. An issue does remain though: is this an unlikely one-off failure, or should we worry about more such deficiency? (this goes for any kind of unusual diet, not just meat-free ones).

How much is avoiding meat worth?

Here is my own calculation of how much it costs to do the same amount of good as replacing one meat meal with one vegetarian meal. If you would be willing to pay this much extra to eat meat for one meal, then you should eat meat. If not, then you should abstain. For instance, if eating meat does $10 worth of harm, you should eat meat whenever you would hypothetically pay an extra $10 for the privilege.

This is a tentative calculation. I will probably update it if people offer substantially better numbers.

All quantities are in terms of social harm.

Eating 1 non-vegetarian meal

< eating 1 chickeny meal (I am told chickens are particularly bad animals to eat, due to their poor living conditions and large animal:meal ratio. The relatively small size of their brains might offset this, but I will conservatively give all animals the moral weight of humans in this calculation.)

< eating 200 calories of chicken (a McDonalds crispy chicken sandwich probably contains a bit over 100 calories of chicken (based on its listed protein content); a Chipotle chicken burrito contains around 180 calories of chicken)

= causing ~0.25 chicken lives (1 chicken is equivalent in price to 800 calories of chicken breast i.e. eating an additional 800 calories of chicken breast conservatively results in one additional chicken. Calculations from data here and here.)

< -$0.08 given to the Humane League (ACE estimates the Humane League spares 3.4 animal lives per dollar). However since the humane league basically convinces other people to be vegetarians, this may be hypocritical or otherwise dubious.

< causing 12.5 days of chicken life (broiler chickens are slaughtered at between 35-49 days of age)

= causing 12.5 days of chicken suffering (I'm being generous)

-$0.50 subsidizing free range eggs,  (This is a somewhat random example of the cost of more systematic efforts to improve animal welfare, rather than necessarily the best. The cost here is the cost of buying free range eggs and selling them as non-free range eggs. It costs about 2.6 2004 Euro cents [= US 4c in 2014] to pay for an egg to be free range instead of produced in a battery. This corresponds to a bit over one day of chicken life. I'm assuming here that the life of a battery egg-laying chicken is not substantially better than that of a meat chicken, and that free range chickens have lives that are at least neutral. If they are positive, the figure becomes even more favorable to the free range eggs).

< losing 12.5 days of high quality human life (assuming saving one year of human life is at least as good as stopping one year of an animal suffering, which you may disagree with.)

= -$1.94-5.49 spent on GiveWell's top charities (This was GiveWell's estimate for AMF if we assume saving a life corresponds to saving 52 years - roughly the life expectancy of children in Malawi. GiveWell doesn't recommend AMF at the moment, but they recommend charities they considered comparable to AMF when AMF had this value.

GiveWell employees' median estimate for the cost of 'saving a life' through donating to SCI is $5936 [see spreadsheet here]. If we suppose a life  is 37 DALYs, as they assume in the spreadsheet, then 12.5 days is worth 5936*12.5/37*365.25 = $5.49. Elie produced two estimates that were generous to cash and to deworming separately, and gave the highest and lowest estimates for the cost-effectiveness of deworming, of the group. They imply a range of $1.40-$45.98 to do as much good via SCI as eating vegetarian for a meal).

Given this calculation, we get a few cents to a couple of dollars as the cost of doing similar amounts of good to averting a meat meal via other means. We are not finished yet though - there were many factors I didn't take into account in the calculation, because I wanted to separate relatively straightforward facts for which I have good evidence from guesses. Here are other considerations I can think of, which reduce the relative value of averting meat eating:

  1. Chicken brains are fairly small, suggesting their internal experience is less than that of humans. More generally, in the spectrum of entities between humans and microbes, chickens are at least some of the way to microbes. And you wouldn't pay much to save a microbe.
  2. Eating a chicken only reduces the number of chicken produced by some fraction. According to Peter Hurford, an extra 0.3 chickens are produced if you demand 1 chicken. I didn't include this in the above calculation because I am not sure of the time scale of the relevant elasticities (if they are short-run elasticities, they might underestimate the effect of vegetarianism).
  3. Vegetable production may also have negative effects on animals.
  4. Givewell estimates have been rigorously checked relative to other things, and evaluations tend to get worse as you check them. For instance, you might forget to include any of the things in this list in your evaluation of vegetarianism. Probably there are more things I forgot. That is, if you looked into vegetarianism with the same detail as SCI, it would become more pessimistic, and so cheaper to do as much good with SCI.
  5. It is not at all obvious that meat animal lives are not worth living on average. Relatedly, animals generally want to be alive, which we might want to give some weight to.
  6. Animal welfare in general appears to have negligible predictable effect on the future (very debatably), and there are probably things which can have huge impact on the future. This would make animal altruism worse compared to present-day human interventions, and much worse compared to interventions directed at affecting the far future, such as averting existential risk.

My own quick guesses at factors by which the relative value of avoiding meat should be multiplied, to account for these considerations:

  1. Moral value of small animals: 0.05
  2. Raised price reduces others' consumption: 0.5
  3. Vegetables harm animals too: 0.9
  4. Rigorous estimates look worse: 0.9
  5. Animal lives might be worth living: 0.2
  6. Animals don't affect the future: 0.1 relative to human poverty charities

Thus given my estimates, we scale down the above figures by 0.05*0.5*0.9*0.9*0.2*0.1 =0.0004. This gives us $0.0008-$0.002 to do as much good as eating a vegetarian meal by spending on GiveWell's top charities. Without the factor for the future (which doesn't apply to these other animal charities), we only multiply the cost of eating a meat meal by 0.004. This gives us a price of $0.0003 with the Humane League, or $0.002 on improving chicken welfare in other ways. These are not price differences that will change my meal choices very often! I think I would often be willing to pay at least a couple of extra dollars to eat meat, setting aside animal suffering. So if I were to avoid eating meat, then assuming I keep fixed how much of my budget I spend on myself and how much I spend on altruism, I would be trading a couple of dollars of value for less than one thousandth of that.

I encourage you to estimate your own numbers for the above factors, and to recalculate the overall price according to your beliefs. If you would happily pay this much (in my case, less than $0.002) to eat meat on many occasions, you probably shouldn't be a vegetarian. You are better off paying that cost elsewhere. If you would rarely be willing to pay the calculated price, you should perhaps consider being a vegetarian, though note that the calculation was conservative in favor of vegetarianism, so you might want to run it again more carefully. Note that in judging what you would be willing to pay to eat meat, you should take into account everything except the direct cost to animals.

There are many common reasons you might not be willing to eat meat, given these calculations, e.g.:

  • You don't enjoy eating meat
  • You think meat is pretty unhealthy
  • You belong to a social cluster of vegetarians, and don't like conflict
  • You think convincing enough others to be vegetarians is the most cost-effective way to make the world better, and being a vegetarian is a great way to have heaps of conversations about vegetarianism, which you believe makes people feel better about vegetarians overall, to the extent that they are frequently compelled to become vegetarians.
  • 'For signaling' is another common explanation I have heard, which I think is meant to be similar to the above, though I'm not actually sure of the details.
  • You aren't able to treat costs like these as fungible (as discussed above)
  • You are completely indifferent to what you eat (in that case, you would probably do better eating as cheaply as possible, but maybe everything is the same price)
  •  You consider the act-omission distinction morally relevant
  • You are very skeptical of the ability to affect anything, and in particular have substantially greater confidence in the market - to farm some fraction of a pig fewer in expectation if you abstain from pork for long enough - than in nonprofits and complicated schemes. (Though in that case, consider buying free-range eggs and selling them as cage eggs).
  • You think the suffering of animals is of extreme importance compared to the suffering of humans or loss of human lives, and don't trust the figures I have given for improving the lives of egg-laying chickens, and don't want to be a hypocrite. Actually, you still probably shouldn't here - the egg-laying chicken number is just an example of a plausible alternative way to help animals. You should really check quite a few of these before settling.

However I think for wannabe effective altruists with the usual array of characteristics, vegetarianism is likely to be quite ineffective.