Nov 13, 2015
With the holiday season coming up, effective altruists around the globe will gather with friends and family to celebrate their good fortune and wonderful community. Community meals are not only fun, but also an important place for us to think about our values and impact. Even though some effective altruists think personal dietary change is too difficult to be the best use of their efforts, I think we can agree on a less demanding norm that still captures many of the benefits of year-round veganism by making sure that EA events are (at least) vegetarian.
Individual consumption of animal products is a common topic in effective altruism. It’s been suggested as one of the small things EAs can do to most help others, and many effective altruists support charities that work to inspire people to reduce their consumption of animal products or helped farmed animals in other ways.
But there’s plenty of opposition from people towards changing their diet from the current social norm of eating animals, and the effective altruism community is no exception. The most common reasons people eat animals have been called:
The Four 'N's: that meat eating is Natural ("humans are natural carnivores"), Necessary ("meat provides essential nutrients"), Normal ("I was raised eating meat") and Nice ("it's delicious"). Of all these reasons "necessary" was the most common.
As effective altruists focused on evidence-based reasoning, we can easily overcome the first two roadblocks because we know (i) the first is a fallacious appeal to nature — naturalness simply isn’t a proper justification for goodness with obvious counterexamples like murder and cannibalism, and (ii) a balanced vegetarian/vegan diet can supply all necessary nutrients and even have substantial health benefits. We could also add that (iii) something that’s normal isn’t necessarily good. Slavery, murder, racism, genocide have all been normal at various times in human history. Tackling the last reason is tough, although (iv) any vegan can tell you that when they serve vegan food without mentioning its lack of animal products, the reaction is often much better than if they say it’s vegan beforehand, so we should be mindful of our biases that make us overestimate the costs of veganism. Most importantly, even if it is nice for you, it’s not nice for the animals!
Regardless, it’s clear vegetarianism/veganism is very difficult for some people, even if that difficulty is often based in social norms or biases. Some have even suggested that going vegetarian or vegan is so difficult that it’s actually not a good choice for many effective altruists. While many animal-friendly effective altruists disagree with the reasoning in those arguments, I think they’re right that the individual diets of effective altruists shouldn’t be our primary focus.
In general, focusing on individual consumption doesn’t seem like a good idea for most social movements, largely because it lacks the provocation of moral outrage that facilitates the viral growth of new ideas, attitudes, and behavior. For example, if you tell me the source of the issue is my own actions, I immediately become defensive, try to rationalize my behavior, and am unlikely to adopt your views. But if you tell me that an institution is at fault, like the animal agriculture industry, I’m free to be as outraged as I should be at the horrors of animal farming.
I think something we can all do, given the difficulty of personal dietary change, is to promote the norm that all effective altruism events should be (at least) vegetarian. I think this avoids the issue of personal defensiveness or difficulty, since even the most steadfast omnivores can’t be threatened by the simple prospect of a few vegetarian meals, while preserving the most important effect we’d get from every effective altruist going vegetarian, that we acknowledge the moral atrocities of animal agriculture and support a future where all sentient beings, human or otherwise, are given due consideration.
Some might worry that vegetarian events will weird people out, but this concern seems to almost exclusively exist in the rationalist community — the anecdotal experience of myself and many others I know indicates most people react to vegetarian fare as a health-conscious, ethical decision. I’d be open to evidence to the contrary here, but of all the weird things effective altruists do, it seems this is a very minor concern if appearing normal is our priority. Similarly, someone might worry that vegetarian fare will be hard to find. Again, I only hear this concern in very specific social circles, and I’ve never seen it happen in practice.
Another concern might be that even if all effective altruist events being vegetarian would be a powerful message, one individual event serving animal bodies surely wouldn’t make the difference. I think this is a reasonable perspective, but EA is large enough now that we really need to consider our decisions as a community rather than just as individuals or isolated groups. If we want to make the huge impact on the world we all desire, we need to work together and look beyond our individual situations because that allows us to collectively achieve things none of us could alone, like making this powerful statement against the torture and objectification of sentient beings.
Others might believe that helping animals abused in animal agriculture isn’t the most important issue for them to work on, so they shouldn’t even spend small amounts of effort on the cause. I think this view makes sense in an isolated context for some individuals, but I think it’s a bad norm for the effective altruism movement. Much of our strength comes from having a strong community of do-gooders working on a diversity of causes who are able to join together for different projects to multiply their impact. I think an important community norm in EA is: we shouldn’t take actions that obviously and severely harm the work many other EAs are doing. Moreover, we should be willing to take small actions that others think are very important, even if they don’t make sense given our particular world-view.
Of course, this is challenging because only one major focus area of effective altruism, as far as I know, is focused on an issue most humans clearly participate in on a day-to-day basis. So there’s not an analogous situation to help other people understand this from an animal advocate’s perspective, but to put it mildly, when other people eat animals at EA events, it feels as if some people at that event gathered in a circle and began writing hate articles against the Centre for Effective Altruism or cutting up malaria nets that the Against Malaria Foundation was planning to distribute. It feels like a slap in the face to our work, and worse, like a dismissal of the plight of the billions of suffering farmed animals.
It’s also worth mentioning that some people have allergies or other medical conditions that could make certain dietary restrictions more difficult. I’ve mostly heard this levered against vegan fare, but it could apply to vegetarian as well, not to mention that milk, eggs, and fish are some of the most common allergies in the United States. For example, something that prevents you from eating beans would exclude several common vegetarian entrees. But it seems that a vegetarian event can still accommodate these people if care is taken in preparation and choice of dishes to serve, especially given the diversity of medical needs I’ve seen at other vegetarian/vegan events. So, as would still be the case with a non-vegetarian event, event organizers should take care to customize their fare so that all serious medical needs can be accommodated.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are several other benefits to EA events being vegetarian, like that vegetarian events could help some effective altruists transition to a vegetarian diet because it shows the viability of vegetarian meals and overcomes the crucial first step in the formation of a new habit. Eating animals also leads people to judge animals as less important than they would otherwise. We want to get as close to clear-headed, debiased moral decision-making as possible, and actively participating in the issue at hand seems like it makes this decision-making much more difficult.
Perhaps more importantly, many effective altruists are bothered by the sight of animal products because it reminds them of the massive suffering in animal agriculture. Although this may seem weird because a piece of meat is so far removed from that tragedy, remember that, “The mark of a civilized human is the ability to look at a column of numbers, and weep.” If we cry at numbers, doesn’t it make sense to feel disturbed by a cut up body that represents billions of abused sentient creatures?
So this holiday season, as you eat and make merry with your fellow do-gooders, I’d ask that you try leaving animals off your plate and encourage others to do the same. The personal costs are minimal (many would even say it’s a benefit!), and the effective altruism community can do huge amounts of good by adopting this simple norm.