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Just out of curiosity — why Latin and Greek? The only people I know that studied those two languages (+ Hebrew) did so for religious reasons, and have derived very interesting insights as a result.

Also, welcome! :-)

Unfortunately when I first joined EA and went vegan I would have been more judgmental but now I think I understand where you're coming from.

My own anecdote: I have an antisocial hamster. He doesn't like being held or pet, and would be happiest with minimal human interaction. There is no reason for me to be so emotionally attached to him — he was given up by his previous owner, but isn't charismatic / affectionate like dogs and cats. Despite this, I adore him. I've built him the best home I can, as large & interesting as possible, for hundreds of dollars. I've taken him to the (expensive) exotic vet ASAP when he needs it so he can be maximally comfortable.

Most people buy hamsters for $20 and let them spend their whole lives in crappy plastic cages. I could have easily have either not sought him out, or after getting him, given him only "standard U.S." levels of care. I don't have a good theory for why he deserves hundreds of dollars worth of herbs and bedding and moss when basically any other use of my money would be more effective at reducing animal suffering. I will accept it's basically unjustifiable. But whatever the me-separate-from-my-morality is — the non-consequentialist bits of squishy human reasoning — that me would be deeply emotionally harmed by harming the little dude.

My best answer is just that my hamster is part of the warm fuzzy budget, not the utilon budget.

Just wanted to chime in with my own random two cents. Lots of empathy to you, and best wishes with Tlalok. Even if it's not maximally moral, I am glad to live in the same world as people like you.

Here is Brian Tomasik's essay on the topic (summary: bivalves might suffer, but the case is much weaker than insect suffering). Animal Liberation by Peter Singer also has a section on bivalves[1], but I don't have it on hand to quote right now.

The important distinction I've seen is that a lot of people give no moral weight to stationary bivalves, i.e. bivalves that stick to a surface and are incapable of self-directed movement. Pain is evolutionarily beneficial to creatures such as humans and chickens (and maybe insects?) to get a creature to remove itself from a harmful situation. But stationary bivalves are much less sensitive to the environment and can't seem to move away from danger, so I don't see any particular reason they would have evolved the ability to feel pain.

  1. ^

    IIRC Singer is much less worried about the possibility of stationary bivalves suffering than Tomasik, to the point of being possibly-in-favor of large-scale bivalve farming in the Northeastern U.S. as a way to produce meat & filter water with ~no animal suffering

People have given me Christmas gifts like this before! Most memorable were a colorful bracelet that was from an anti-malaria donation, and lottery-style scratch cards where the "wins" go to charity. I was very thankful for both, but also old enough to already care about the charity part.


Do your niblings have any strong moral opinions? At 14, at least, I was definitely old enough to have a couple moral/political opinions. I'm not sure contributing to a 14 y/o's pet cause is particularly directly effective (even by the cause-preferences of their future-self). However, it could be a) show you know them well enough to know what they care about and b) demonstrate that a person can use resources to have an impact in the real world.

If they volunteer somewhere they care about, you could do a split donation; 50% to the place they volunteer so they can (hopefully) see the impact, and 50% to a related effective charity. Like 50% to a local hospital they volunteer at, at 50% to an effective global health org.

 I've heard some younger kids go through vegetarian phases, so if that's true of any of your niblings maybe something like a cute stuffed animal (highland cow?) that also donates to protecting that animal? Though hopefully you know their parents well enough that you won't get in trouble if the kid ends up less willing to eat steak.

If they don't have strong opinions yet but are curious about a topic, can you get them a book? For example, if the 14 y/o loves computers, you could get them something AI related. I really liked Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies in high school, even though a lot of it went over my head. Less-technical high schoolers might prefer a book of philosophy, psychology, or fiction. (I know very little about kids younger than high school, but surely there are equivalents!)

Otherwise if you're just going to get a physical gift from donating to a charity that your niblings don't particularly care about, I'd prioritize that object also being something they would like independently of the donation. (ex. a cool bracelet they can wear to school, a classy notebook if they like to write, whatever)

On your first bullet point, I think everyone agrees kidney donation is not maximally cost effective[1]. It is far more effective than most mainstream charity, so it still seems to be under the EA larger umbrella, but the associated cost would probably come at least partially out of the "warm fuzzy" bucket and not the "max utility" bucket.

On your second point, I think that argument is internally consistent but most people will be repelled by it. I am vegan and donate to animal charities, and I think it's definitely nonoptimal that people continue creating demand for factory farming. However, I am still extremely opposed to humans dying against their will if we have a (reasonable-cost) solution.

Scott's post above is specifically aimed at helping people who are already interested in donating a kidney (the majority, at least according to surveys) have an easier time donating. I don't think it is primarily focused on convincing EAs in unrelated cause areas to donate a kidney, so you're likely not the target audience.

If you oppose other people donating kidneys on the grounds that it will probably increase meat consumption:

  • Being nice to other value systems is a very important heuristic, even if those value systems are slightly net negative to you. Debating the effectiveness of kidney donations on the EA forum is obviously fair game, but in general, refusing to play nice with e.g. organ donation is considered a large defection in >=95% of people's value systems, and I think you stand to lose a lot more than you gain if you pick that battle.
  • If following a value system to its logical extremes requires supporting outcomes that feel deeply morally wrong, probably something is wrong either with the value system or how it's being applied[2]. To me, opposing healthcare to reduce the poor meat-eater problem feels sufficiently morally wrong that if I reached the same conclusion, I would rather change my moral system than bite the relevant bullets.

I hope this doesn't come off as adversarial; I think we're from closely-adjacent moral systems, and I disagree with you but am also very happy to talk to someone that cares a lot about animal suffering.

  1. ^

    At least for people making incomes I associate with EAs. For people making less than median income who have less chance to work and donate, it may be a relatively more effective option?

  2. ^

    My hand-wavey version of this argument would be that I think we have a lot of (biologically & culturally) hard-coded immunities to ideological extremes. Unfortunately the immunity is stupid & inarticulate, but it is often legitimately useful and I don't want to discard it unless I'm really really sure.

    My other version of this argument would be that I have a sense of "right" and "wrong" that my moral system is built on top of. I'm not convinced that "right" and "wrong" are features of the universe that it is even coherent for me to imagine without the internal sense bit. There is nothing about either the suffering of a chicken or a kidney dialysis patient that is bad unless I have an internal sense that suffering itself is bad. So debating mortality past the point where the outcomes achieved seems wrong feels pointless. Most arguments in favor of a moral system make the outcome feel more right upon reflection, which is why I like to read arguments in favor of specific moral systems.

The 1/660 was for the standard CT screening exam; Scott says he was able to get a non-radioactive (MRI) alternative, so presumably that risk of death is ~irrelevant for people that ask the question.

Also, while I have no particular opinion on your monetary analysis, it seems orthogonal to the reasons Scott mentioned donating the kidney (& the reason I think it's tempting for a lot of EAs).

Scott himself calculates that "...it only costs about $5,000 - $10,000 to produce this many QALYs through bog-standard effective altruist interventions, like buying mosquito nets for malarial regions in Africa. In a Philosophy 101 Thought Experiment sense, if you’re going to miss a lot of work recovering from your surgery, you might as well skip the surgery, do the work, and donate the extra money to Against Malaria Foundation instead."

The reasons for a kidney donation are because it feels good to know you're directly helping a specific person in a legible way/amount, significantly more effectively than a lot of charities people donate to [though less effective than The Best EA Charities] while being legibly good to even non-EA people.

A lot of non-EA people have strong negative bias toward the "you could work extra hours and donate the money to slightly decrease factory farming" thinking, but pretty much everyone is in favor of donating organs. And sometimes it's really nice to do good in a way that makes people like you more, not less.

Sorry if I misunderstood the criticism you were making above. Obviously I can't speak for Scott, but I am very sympathetic to the choice to donate a kidney even if it's not maximally cost-effective.

I fully agree with all of the above. From the first message of this thread I noted that I agreed with the cruxes of the post. I agree that N, M, and P are important and we should gather & disseminate better information on them.

To my understanding, in futher posts we've been discussing how much the trade-offs matter, to what extent they've been suppressed, and whether some sub-fields have trade-offs at all (e.g. leather).

I don't think it's possible to have a discussion without any shadow of Q, because ultimately without Q there's not even a discussion (beyond a 1-page of current research on one lifestyle choice among many). Your "why is this so hard to talk about" section is answered mostly with Q itself. 

That being said, I should have worked harder to stay on topic. I apologize if my replies here have been unhelpful to this discussion. 

At the very least, I am still thankful for your thoughtful responses, as I have found this thread both interesting and useful.

You're absolutely correct on the details. Most people going SAD -> vegan increase health, because they generally trade cost or convenience.[1]

Most people[2] wouldn't pay $N or $M for P without Q, as most people who don't value Q don't make the trade. I would not expect any completely amoral Americans to be vegan. My veganism is an argument based on Q, not for the irrelevance of N/M or the magnitude of P. I would expect both N & M to decrease as percent vegans in the local population increase.

However, while vegan being > SAD on health (even without mentioning N/M) is not relevant to this discussion, correctly saying "hey a balanced vegan diet won't make you waste away" is still shocking news to many people. Therefore noting that there is a P is very useful with many non-vegans. If any EA people think there is no N/M, I think this is possibly the only U.S. subculture where that's true.[3]

Also, to take a step toward the meta: "good health" and "animal suffering" are [sometimes] sacred values, where time/$ aren't. So for whom those are sacred values, this is noting that you can have both sacred values by trading against only non-sacred values. Hopefully this is irrelevant to EA/LW people, but it is extremely relevant in the "real world".

  1. ^

    In wealthy urban areas with higher % vegans, the trade-off is usually cost (eating out at vegan restaurants, etc.). In areas that are small with few vegans, the trade-off is convenience (I started cooking more; there is only one vegan restaurant near me that is too far & expensive to regularly visit).

  2. ^

    In regular meat-heavy U.S. culture. YMMV in specific subcultures.

  3. ^

    Sorry for my clumsy wording & many footnotes. What I'm trying to say is that in the equation where you trade $N and $M for P and Q, I think people (outside maybe EA) systematically overcalculate N and M and undercalculate P, even before accounting for Q, since they think being vegan is harder than it actually is and leads to a negative P value, which is usually false.

    I still don't think they'd make the trade without Q, but in an effort to "counter-balance" Q people seem to (unconsciously?) distort N, M, and P.

It is funny[1] how long the post ended up & how much we've all ended up debating in the comments, given that I am in 100% agreement with the two-sentence summary and all three footnotes.

  1. ^

    Not blaming you, of course. Just observing

First off, thank you for your thorough & thoughtful replies (as well as the thorough & thoughtful original post). I appreciate you using your time to improve the quality of the conversation on veganism.

I agree it's possible that small amounts of high-quality animal products provide minor benefits to people heavily optimizing for health who are otherwise capable of being healthy on a plant-based diet. I just think that 1) very few people are optimizing hard enough for this to matter, and 2) [in people that could be healthy vegans] the value of the mild health benefit is less than the ethical value of preventing the required animal suffering, even if they are being consistent by buying small amounts of extremely expensive high-quality meat.

People for whom iron supplements / heme iron in plant-based meat doesn't help (& would be anemic on any plant-based diet) seem like the kind of people who have obvious and justifiable health-based reason for eating meat. In footnote 1 I was thinking of people who hadn't tried a supplement.

(Also, this is obviously the type of discussion I'd only have in venues like this forum. If a friend says "I have to eat meat because I'm anemic," I don't say "Are you sure??? Have you really tried multiple vegan supplements???" I just say "Dang, that sucks, hope you feel better.")

IIUC you want to allow vegans to be imperfect (with the acceptable bar raising with wealth), but are pretty worried about free riders saying "yay animals! I'm a vegan!" while not actually doing much that actually matters.

This is an accurate description. The details are obviously harder to hammer out.

I would make E being the ethical cost of animal products, s.t. one should go vegan iff N < M*(health costs of meat) + M*E. 

Ideally going vegan keeps you in good health. For many on the SAD, I think a vegan diet will improve health. However, if veganism is going to cause death/disability, avoid it.[1][2] If it's going to keep you in good health but keep you slightly short of technically optimal functioning, I think the ethical benefits are enough for veganism to still be worth it.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "looking for improvements on the margin" before recommending veganism — do you mean health improvements? I'd prefer people default to the maximally-ethical diet and then only introduce animal products as really needed for health, not default to eating animals and then only test out veganism after being super-duper sure they can't eke out a few % increase using offal.[3]

As far as amelitarianism — I'm sure there are indeed plenty of people who'd find amelitarianism easier, and I'm under no illusion that they care about my personal opinions.[4] They don't affect my morale, and I prefer amelitarians to standard omnivores. I would only take issue if they call themselves vegan, as then (in aggregate) it affects the meaning of the word, my ability to get (actually) vegan food, etc.

For the record, I hope I haven't come off as too critical; I think we largely agree.

I am very in favor of gathering more empirical evidence on veganism. I think it helps everyone, very much including vegans; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.[5][6]

I think testing people's vitamin levels is good, both in giving us community information, and in helping those individuals avoid deficiency. Telling people who somehow missed the memo about B12 supplementation is very good; I'd strongly prefer people not give themselves permanent nerve damage.

Some of your writing feels concern-troll-ish at first pass, but a) I'm not the tone police, b) I think your research is beneficial, and c) there's a reasonable chance I'm just oversensitized by how often I bump into actual concern trolls.

I think our only real disagreement is how much animal suffering matters compared to minor human health benefits (in the population of people who could be healthy plant-based[7]).


  1. ^

    My hot political take is that I quite like humans, and would prefer humans not suffer/die. I would also prefer animals not suffer. I think these can usually be resolved with minimal conflict, but unfortunately not always. What are the odds I convince lots of non-vegans to get their animal-eating needs in the form of stationary bivalves and/or roadkill? :P

  2. ^

    Again, both in the "literally cannot process vegan supplements correctly" way and the "extenuating circumstances" way. I mention SPD in a previous-post footnote. I also would be uncomfortable talking about veganism with someone with a history of eating disorders, for example.

  3. ^

    Actually I'm not sure what the offal footnote means in general. I hope I've accurately conveyed that "tasting" animals is not the problem. Though offal pills might be more ethical if they're low-cost byproducts? Or maybe you're saying sticking to offal-only decreases the chance of eating unnecessary animal products?

  4. ^

    I read Ozy's post a while back and have never commented on amelitarianism before. I only gave an opinion on amelitarianism here because you specifically brought it up in a reply to me.

  5. ^

    I'm sure the link was for illustrative purposes, but just to be clear, I'm not the linked LW commenter, nor am I opposed to you conducting research.

  6. ^

    Also, completely selfishly, I'd prefer vegans not Streisand effect the real but (IMO) manageable convenience costs of being vegan, at least for those of us in very-omnivorous communities. [Maybe there are no convenience costs for people in wealthy coastal cities with high vegan populations and multiple vegan friends, but if so I can't relate.]

  7. ^

    Which I estimated at >=80% if ignoring financial constraints, but I'm very open to both research into what this percent actually is and (ideally) nutrition/agriculture/etc research on ways to raise it.

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