My new favourite book about vegetarianism is Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism by the philosopher Michael Huemer, published in 2019. I think it should be the new standard text in effective altruism fellowships and discussion groups to introduce issues surrounding eating meat. Ending factory farming is only one part of animal advocacy, but I am dissatisfied with the existing treatment of animal experimentation in Animal Liberation. And wild animal welfare as a field of study is too new to have had a go-to book written about it. The main advantages of the book are, as I see it:
- Dialogues is only 135 pages long (including notes), so it’s totally reasonable to assume someone can read it in a week or two.
- The book is written in dialogue format, which reads nicely (I love dialogues so much I wrote one myself). It does a good job anticipating the reader’s objections. And it illustrates the process of how people’s minds get changed about meat-eating.
- Animal Liberation, being written in 1975, is outdated. The section about animal experimentation has aged particularly poorly. Ethics review has tightened significantly since then (perhaps too much). As I recall, Singer argued that animal experimentation is not particularly useful to science, which came across to me as simply naive. I am not aware of any scientist who would make this claim.
- Huemer is good at not telling you his unrelated opinions. He is an anarchist, but you would never know that from the book. Most writing about animal welfare in the popular press features the author giving their tangentially related left-of-centre takes about society (including Eating Animals).
- Huemer is far from utilitarian, which is a good rejoinder to those who believe that eating meat is only wrong if utilitarianism is true (or some weaker version of that claim). In fact, the protagonist of the dialogue at one point says something that implies that the imperative not to eat animal products is strongest under the non-consequentialist moral theories.
- Dialogues was boringly titled and marketed, so people are unlikely to read it unless they are prompted through their local effective altruism group. This raises the value of assigning the book because people are likely to passively encounter the memes from the more popular animal welfare writings.
- Peter Singer himself in the preface says that when people ask him about why he is vegan, he recommends they read this book and not Animal Liberation!
- The book has an annotated bibliography which is a good jumping-off point for anyone that wants to read more.
And the main disadvantages are:
- Relative to how short it is, the book is expensive (€18 paperback, €15 Kindle).
- Nutrition, or how to cook veggie/vegan, is not dealt with.
- The book doesn’t discuss wild animal welfare at any length. However, the topic is sufficiently new that I’m not aware of any books that cover it. Animal experimentation is not dealt with.
I haven’t seen any discussion of this book in EA circles, which is a shame, as I thought it was pretty neat. I hope to see it assigned as reading by EA groups in the future.
Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.
P.S. Huemer has a great blog called Fake Nous. Bryan Caplan and Huemer also had a dialogue not dissimilar to the one depicted in the book on Bryan’s blog.
EDIT: ag4000 points out that "If you want a legal free copy of the book, a previous draft was published in Between the Species. You can find it here."
I want to flag that I don't think that a text on issues surround eating meat belongs in an introductory EA fellowship curriculum. While I liked Huemer's Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism and am an ethical vegan myself, I don't think going vegan is actually very relevant to the project of doing the most good possible.
I agree Huemer's book is tangentially relevant to EA in the sense that if a person doesn't think there's anything wrong with how typical animal agriculture is conducted then I think they're likely going to have a big blind spot preventing them from properly comprehending the scale of animal suffering that exists in the world, which could potentially prevent them from doing the most good if it turns out their comparative advantage is doing something to help animals.
But I know plenty of EAs who are aware factory farming is awful, yet find going vegetarian or vegan personally difficult and instead opt to be reducetarian or in some cases not change their diet at all. While I agree with Huemer that this is morally problematic, from an EA perspective I think it's more or less fine in the sense that I think personal dietary change represents a very small impact compared to other things that EAs often do, meaning such people can still do a very large amount of good despite not changing their diet. So I fear that bludgeoning them over the head with a text arguing that they're acting immorally would not be appropriate in the context of an EA curriculum meant to educate them on concepts related to doing the most good possible. Inclusion of the text would seem to suggest to newcomers that EAs believe that a person changing their diet is big part of doing as much good as they can, which I don't think is true, and I don't think most EAs think is true.
A more relevant text to include in an Intro to EA curriculum in my view would be one that focuses on describing the animal suffering that exists in the world or effective efforts to reduce the suffering, rather than one that focuses on how dietary change is morally necessary. Some suggestions in this vein:
Thanks for the comment.
I agree that not eating meat is a small part of one's potential impact. However, we had fellows in our fellowship who thought eating meat was ok. It seems quite important to argue against this to improve their moral reasoning and get them to take arguments seriously.
I am not sure which curricula include Animal Liberation, but I would think any context in which that is appropriate, this is also.
Huemer's book is what convinced me to go vegan after being a vegetarian for a number of years. I like his approach of putting general normative frameworks to the side. My only complaint is that, by downplaying the probability of invertebrate sentience and the ability to help wild animals, he has made the ethical landscape appear less complex than it really is. I also appreciate his (largely unsuccessful) attempts to engage libertarians on this issue, who often focus arbitrarily on state coercion rather than all coercion.
I absolutely LOVE these dialogues; they're my go-to introduction to why I think that animal welfare and veganism are so important. I especially like to have people read them one day at a time, discussing each day with them after they've read it. The dialogues are engaging and far more comprehensive for the size than anything else I know.
One criticism I have is that the dialogues don't mention much the conditions in which animals on factory farms live. I find that one bottleneck is that people don't always believe that factory farming is a big deal until they learn about the severity of suffering within the farms. I therefore plan to supplement reading the Dialogues with some other sources.
By the way, if you want a legal free copy of the book, a previous draft was published in Between the Species. You can find it here.
Perhaps this should be added to the main post.
funny that you say this, given that his latest blog post was a fairly positive take on rule utilitarianism!
anyway, i haven't read this book yet (would like to, though), but i second your recommendation of huemer's blog, which is admirably straightforward.