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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.

Comments (57)

Comment author: Ben_Kuhn 23 November 2014 06:39:58PM 22 points [-]

I agree with the weakest statement that you make in this article, namely that vegetarianism is not a totally obvious conclusion from EA premises, and non-vegetarian EAs should not be shamed or moralized at.

That said, I think your imaginary vegetarian debate partner is making a pretty bad pro-vegetarian case. For instance:

  • You managed to list six considerations that weigh against vegetarianism in your sketched-out cost-effectiveness analysis, but none that weigh for it. This is surprising, since there are plenty such considerations! Here are examples of a few:

    • The cost-effectiveness estimate for The Humane League is likely non-robust and biased upwards (so when this bias is accounted for, it costs more to avert the same amount of harm through donation rather than through personal choices)
    • Even "cage-free eggs" are very unlikely to be suffering-free, since the farmer is optimizing for "ability to put the label 'cage-free' on the eggs" and not actually reducing the suffering of the chickens
    • Each consumed animal is responsible for some flow-through deaths on expectation, due to e.g. animal deaths while their feed is being harvested, which weighs against the conversion to human QALYs or cage-free egg subsidies
    • The inconvenience-cost-per-meal of vegetarianism falls dramatically as you get used to being vegetarianism
    • Even if logically inconvenience-from-donating and inconvenience-from-vegetarianism should be perfectly fungible, this is likely untrue/psychologically impractical in practice
    • Torture on factory farms may be worse than a painless death, so averting one factory-farmed year might save more than one QALY
  • "Vegetables harm animals too" is likely not actually a consideration that weighs against, because the farmed animals are fed vegetables as well (see above consideration).

  • You claim that eating cheaply and eating vegetarianism are in tension. This seems extremely unlikely to be true to me. Meat is expensive.

  • More broadly, the case that eating fewer animals causes fewer animals to be harmed is very robust and common-sense, whereas the case for instead offsetting the harm with increased donations seems rather fragile and uncertain.

Again, I agree with the suggestion that there are parameters someone could stick into your calculations for their personal estimates of the moral value of small animals, personal ability to funge different types of inconveniences, personal trust in multiplying-lots-of-numbers versus robust common-sense arguments, etc. But I think this parameter space is smaller than you're giving it credit for.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 24 November 2014 05:06:38AM 8 points [-]

The broader point is that "not doing something bad" is a very robust way to prevent bad things from happening. So we should expect it to hold up better under further scrutiny. This seems like a good thing to keep in mind in general.

Overall I think we are on broadly the same page, but I think you are being somewhat unfair (roughly as unfair as Katja).

I do agree that Katja's estimate sans-adjustment is more reasonable than after adding her six adjustments, modulo the omitted conversion factor between "A chicken living a year of life in a farm" ~ "a human being dead for a year." And there is probably some (modest) adjustment in the other direction because of the high robustness of not doing bad things.

Both eating cheaply and eating vegetarian are in tension with eating pleasantly. It seems quite likely that these funge against each other. I think that was the point of bringing up eating cheaply. (I ate vegetarian for 6 months and it was definitely true for me. It would be true for a random restriction that cut out a significant fraction of possible foods, but I found it much worse than that even after considerable optimization.)

Common-sense arguments still need to take account of the magnitudes of things. We constantly do things with material negative effects, saying that something is bad requires some argument about how bad it is, which you can call "multiplying-lots-of-numbers" if you want. But the actual issue with common-sense vs. speculation isn't entering at this stage, it's coming at the stage where you compare to offsetting donations.

I agree that free range eggs are not that great a comparison. Actually comparing to chickens whose lives are worth living is much more complicated because of monitoring difficulties. My family has some involvement with humane farming, and I think I can make reasonable guesses. Assuming that the lives of chickens in nature are worth living, then I think you can probably buy your offset in a direct way (by subsidizing the difference in production prices) for around 1-2x the price of the underlying chicken (which is a few times more pessimistic than Katja's estimate). For a Chipotle chicken burrito, I think this is something like 15-30% of the price of your meal. For animals other than chicken, this is way cheaper.

I think you are right to complain about many of Katja's assumptions as too extreme. But the underlying argument is pretty conservative.

1) Eating chickens---especially under the assumption that there is no discount owing to their (quite) tiny brains--is worse than eating larger animals. A lot worse. "Cutting chicken" is much more cost-effective than vegetarianism, but they are being equated here.

2) On a spectrum from "Normal life for a human in developing world, nothing, life for a chicken on a factory farm," Katja is putting "nothing" at the midpoint. This seems pretty conservative. I understand that living on a factory farm may be twice as bad as dying, and that human experiences may be comparable in importance to chicken experiences. But can we at least grant that this is a relatively extreme perspective? How many people do you think you would have to survey, before you found one who agreed?

3) If you look at the recent anti-meat-eating arguments that have been going around, Katja seems to be representing them reasonably charitably. E.g. see Rob Bensinger's argument for "the intellectual case against meat is pretty airtight" and comments there, which explicitly make this argument. I agree with you that the weakest claim is the most robust, i.e. "One can defend eating meat" rather than "One should eat meat," and that Katja's post seems more reasonable in the context of the recent pro-veganism arguments. A more moderate middle ground would seem more reasonable than either camp.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 23 November 2014 11:19:14PM 6 points [-]

You claim that eating cheaply and eating vegetarianism are in tension. This seems extremely unlikely to be true to me. Meat is expensive.

On this point, I hypothesize that a lot of people believe vegetarianism is expensive because they attempt to replace meat with faux-meat instead of replacing it with cheaper protein sources like legumes and nuts.

Comment author: Larks 24 November 2014 12:34:31AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 25 November 2014 04:25:16PM 4 points [-]

Short version: eating cheaply and eating vegetarian are in tension if you try to hold "enjoyment of food" constant.

Comment author: freeze4576 21 August 2015 07:33:02PM 2 points [-]

Not really, if you believe so you should cite studies showing that vegetarians are less happy than non-vegetarians on average. Your preferences adapt (hedonic treadmill, etc.). Furthermore, abundant research shows that vegetarians live several years longer than non-vegetarians and are healthier on average.

Comment author: Nekoinentr 24 November 2014 08:13:02AM 2 points [-]

I agree with the weakest statement that you make in this article, namely that vegetarianism is not a totally obvious conclusion from EA premises, and non-vegetarian EAs should not be shamed or moralized at.

Yes, that's the most important thing to keep sight of and is true regardless of whether there are problems with the particular cost-effectiveness analysis here. EG I'm not sure that the evidence for vegan outreach leafleting being that cost-effective is that strong.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 24 November 2014 12:14:41PM 14 points [-]

I think the stronger case for being veg*n is that one of our goals is to make other people care more about all other beings. Starting conversations about how farm animals shouldn't be treated cruelly is one of the most frequent opportunities to broach that issue, both with aspiring effective altruists, and the general public.

The welfare of animals is one of the cases where mainstream morality is most misguided. Being veg*n allows you to discuss important moral issues almost every time you eat with other people. I find this often leads onto other issues as well, like effective charity. If you are good at having these conversations, it could be well worth the inconvenience.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 25 November 2014 06:31:49PM 2 points [-]

I imagine that you're quite good at tying many conversations back to issues like effective charity. Do you think that starting conversations about veg*nism beats your base-rate, or is it a trade-off for the benefits of discussing the welfare of animals, and you're just explaining that the opportunity cost is lower than we might think?

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 25 November 2014 08:55:07PM 4 points [-]

Hey Owen, it's more a good natural starting point for conversations about how to improve the world that come up because you're eating. I don't think it takes time away from talking about effective charity - rather it means you're less likely to talk about neither.

Comment author: Larks 26 November 2014 02:24:34AM 0 points [-]

This seems like an argument for avoiding meat when dining in company, but not necessarily an argument for avoiding meat in general. Eating meat at home doesn't prevent other people from asking why you're not eating meat. True, it would be dishonest to claim to be a vegetarian if you ate meat privately, but it seems one could follow this strategy and yet not actually claim to be vegetarian. I suppose this depends somewhat on which conversational gambits one uses.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 26 November 2014 11:46:14AM 5 points [-]

Lying to people about what you do is never a sustainable strategy.

And saying 'I don't eat meat in front of other people so I can have conversations about animal welfare' is not that compelling!

Comment author: Larks 26 November 2014 10:50:45PM 1 point [-]

Right, which is why I said "one could follow this strategy and yet not actually claim to be vegetarian".

Yes, you probably shouldn't say that. But

  • 'I don't eat meat so I can have conversations about animal welfare'

is also not that compelling!

Comment author: freeze4576 21 August 2015 07:36:16PM -1 points [-]

It's much more compelling by comparison, especially when backed up with the fact that the person at issue actually does care about all other beings, including animals (even if s/he doesn't believe veganism is the most effective possible way of reducing suffering).

Comment author: yboris 24 November 2014 06:34:37AM 7 points [-]

First off, you can view vegetarianism as a gradient and the goal is to decrease meat consumption, not “avoid it at all costs”. With this approach, you can, when significantly inconvenient otherwise, consume some meat. Problem solved – right? I hope you’re not fighting a straw-man of “you must be a strict vegetarian at all costs” because THAT is a very weak position to hold.

I feel a lot of what’s at stake pivots on just how inconvenient (empirically) decreasing meat consumption for yourself is. It can surely seem inconvenient to anyone who hasn’t chosen to start, but just like most habits, they are hardly noticeable once you’re done converting. In this case I suspect the “difficult” part will last less than 2 months. Again, it’s not about making a switch to a vegetables-only diet, but a simple habit of consuming less meat when the costs are small.

You seem to severely overestimate the difficulties of consuming less meat when say “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.” I suspect all people will spend at least SOME time researching which food is relatively healthy. I think it’s an inevitable part of growing up, that’s not a large cost – you do it once and you’re done. Vegetarianism, insofar as it’s different from the norm, might mean you have to put in extra research hours (it’s not many!), but you do it once and you’re done. The question is whether it’s worth putting in the hours –and because your decision affects a significant amount of suffering you will otherwise cause during your life– I’m confident it’s worth it. Sometimes it helps to hear how the complaint you make works in other scenarios: “being a good parent means a bit more time searching …” or “being a good EA means a bit more time searching …” It seems to me that when it’s an important enough issue, you grit your teeth (if you don’t like the process) and do the research. I’m sorry if I’m missing something about the argument.

Saying it is difficult to switch is downright baffling to me. When you’re in a restaurant, I can’t comprehend why it’s more difficult to choose a vegetarian option over a meat-based dish. And when shopping at a store, it’s just as easy to buy the meatless-patties or fake-chicken. Where is the extra willpower or attention cost you speak of? Perhaps you’re not defending making a meat-dish choice in these scenarios, but please let us know.

In your argument you mention that going vegetarian is like “donating to a random developing world charity because it relieves the suffering of an impoverished child more than foregoing $5 increases your suffering.” To make the analogy with vegetarianism more appropriate, you would also have to be the overwhelming cause of that child’s misery unless you gave the $5. For example, you’re already paying some people to keep some children in cages, and you could choose to spend $5 more, so one less child is kept in a cage.

With the significant health benefits of a vegetable-based diet (at least over a typical american diet), there are even selfish reasons to base your diet around vegetables. I am puzzled why you think the health benefits are minimal. Some research studies suggest vegetarians live significantly longer than non-vegetarians.

Finally, I won’t comment on your calculations, but I find them deeply problematic.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 24 November 2014 12:04:02PM 11 points [-]

In your argument you mention that going vegetarian is like “donating to a random developing world charity because it relieves the suffering of an impoverished child more than foregoing $5 increases your suffering.” To make the analogy with vegetarianism more appropriate, you would also have to be the overwhelming cause of that child’s misery unless you gave the $5.

Katja actually already grants this point, in a roundabout way. She lists "You consider the act-omission distinction morally relevant" as a reason you might be vegetarian even granting her calculations. In the general population I think perhaps most people would consider the distinction morally relevant. In the EA community, it's a smaller fraction. I think even if you don't grant the act-omission distinction as theoretically grounded, it has some value as a heuristic, but this would have less than an order of magnitude effect on the conclusions I'd draw from the calculations.

Finally, I won’t comment on your calculations, but I find them deeply problematic.

I'd love to hear a bit about what you find problematic. I think a great advantage of using explicit calculations like this is not that I trust the numbers entirely, but it makes it much easier to find the source of disagreements. But you need to say what you find wrong about them for that to work!

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 24 November 2014 11:59:45AM 3 points [-]

When you’re in a restaurant, I can’t comprehend why it’s more difficult to choose a vegetarian option over a meat-based dish. And when shopping at a store, it’s just as easy to buy the meatless-patties or fake-chicken. Where is the extra willpower or attention cost you speak of?

Most people enjoy having choice, so there is a cost to restricting your number of choices. I certainly know vegetarians who complain about the lack of choice of vegetarian options in restaurants. If you are constrained to eat food that you don't like, that's liable to draw away attention in the moment (although so can eating food you really like!), and may also increase the amount of time you need to spend doing other things to feel properly mentally recharged.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 24 November 2014 11:48:40AM 1 point [-]

First off, you can view vegetarianism as a gradient and the goal is to decrease meat consumption, not “avoid it at all costs”. With this approach, you can, when significantly inconvenient otherwise, consume some meat. Problem solved – right?

There is a spectrum here, but the question is where you should stop. Katja's argument suggests that even relatively insignificant inconveniences should be enough to allow you to consume some meat.

Note that from the direct impact of consumption choices, it seems like it would make a lot of sense to focus more on eating a little bit less meat. For a typical meat-eater, cutting the first 20% of your meat consumption is likely to be pretty painless compared to the final 20%. So it seems odd that so many more conversations are about vegetarianism (which I'd interpret as 'almost never eat meat'). Is this because it's a natural Schelling point?

Comment author: Giles 24 November 2014 01:58:48AM 5 points [-]

To me, four important effective altruism barriers are cognitive dissonance, akrasia, arrogance and value erosion. More precisely:

  • cognitive dissonance as deliberately choosing to be nasty so as to gain some small amount of fungible resource which can be spent on effective charity
  • akrasia as choosing not to give because somehow you don't feel like it, hoarding your money because you can always spend it later
  • arrogance as believing that because you have access to and trust in a specific piece of knowledge (in this case charity effectiveness), you will have vastly more effect on the world than an average person
  • value erosion as future selves deciding they don't care about animals after all.

I think cognitive dissonance and value erosion work similarly here, and both point in favour of veganism.

Arrogance is a complicated one because it might actually be true that you have a huge positive effect compared to an average person (it's kind of what we're striving for). But actually alieving it might be problematic, and it might make sense to just be a vegan and unplug your phone chargers when not in use in order to feel more normal.

Akrasia could work both ways - there's a possibility that veganism could "use up" your charitableness, which would certainly be a bad thing. But on the other hand veganism might help you integrate socially with other vegan activists, which might be a motivating factor to give.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 27 November 2014 06:41:37PM *  2 points [-]

deliberately choosing to be nasty so as to gain some small amount of fungible resource which can be spent on effective charity

I'm sympathetic to this idea, but I'm not sure when to apply it. For example, if someone comes to my door asking for money for a charity I think is inefficient, am I "deliberately choosing to be nasty" in the way you describe?

The proposed effect is psychological, so presumably the distinction should be psychological -- that one shouldn't do things one feels are nasty?

I don't think most people really alief that eating meat is nasty; at least, I didn't until I became vegetarian and internalized those feelings over the course of about a month. Does whether a person aliefs that eating meat is nasty matter to this effect?

Comment author: Giles 28 November 2014 04:10:44AM *  0 points [-]

Good questions! I guess there are times when our feeling of nastiness can be exploited, and in those cases we have to bypass it. If you always give money to people at the door, they could just turn up the next day asking for more - it may or may not be a "nice feeling" strategy but it wouldn't be a successful one.

I think that someone's aliefs about eating meat are relevant to the cognitive dissonance concept. In the case where somebody eats meat and doesn't alief that eating meat is nasty, I can imagine three subcases:

  • Person doesn't care about nonhuman animals or is unaware of cruelty issue
  • Compartmentalization
  • Eating meat is actually the EA thing to do, and all the for/against arguments have been internalized

In the case where somebody eats meat and does alief that eating meat is nasty, I can imagine:

  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Compartmentalization
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 29 November 2014 01:53:33AM *  1 point [-]

I think cognitive dissonance and value erosion work similarly here, and both point in favour of veganism.

But they may point against the spreading of veg*nism. By spreading the idea that animals in factory farms suffer, you may cause people to decide that they don't care about animals after all. (It seems like every person who is unconvinced of your arguments for veg*nism is at risk for this.)

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 26 November 2014 09:34:51PM *  0 points [-]

cognitive dissonance as deliberately choosing to be nasty so as to gain some small amount of fungible resource which can be spent on effective charity

Do you mean that choosing to be nasty can cause us to come to prefer nastiness (as a result of cognitive dissonance), and that this is an argument in favor of being nice?

Akrasia could work both ways - there's a possibility that veganism could "use up" your charitableness, which would certainly be a bad thing. But on the other hand veganism might help you integrate socially with other vegan activists, which might be a motivating factor to give.

Alternatively, behaving altruistically could motivate you to pursue additional altruistic behaviors, creating a positive feedback cycle. This seems most plausible to me.

Comment author: Giles 27 November 2014 04:49:11AM 0 points [-]

Do you mean that choosing to be nasty can cause us to come to prefer nastiness

Being nasty in order to achieve some greater good requires complicated reasoning which can feel wrong. I'd argue that it's best to limit the amount of that kind of reasoning that we subscribe to - it feels like it could be demotivating, or that we could become desensitized to the feeling of wrongness, or something.

creating a positive feedback cycle

I agree.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 23 November 2014 04:07:11PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for the post! Transplanting a comment from the open thread:

Your thoughts about about trading inconveniences and displeasures are interesting. Would it be good to encourage a norm that all goods and "currencies" that take part in one's altruism activities should be tradeable with one another? Is this psychologically realistic?

A similar set of themes came up in the recent post about kidney donation: "we wouldn't encourage someone to donate a kidney if it meant they would forego significant donations to GiveWell's top charities. But we don’t see why that should be the case, since giving a kidney is a complement to and not a replacement for monetary donation." Would you make roughly the same argument there as you do about trading inconvenience and displeasure?

Comment author: Nekoinentr 26 November 2014 07:53:52AM *  3 points [-]

If The Humane League can convert people to vegetarianism for anything like the amounts estimated, and people who find vegetarianism particularly difficult and unpleasant would rather pay to convert someone else than go vegetarianism themselves, then isn't this the best option? It certainly seems to beat haranguing people who find vegetarianism too difficult, which only causes bad feelings on all sides. I've heard some prominent EAA group people advocate this sort of 'vegetarian offsetting'.

Comment author: MasonHartman 26 November 2014 09:37:55AM *  5 points [-]

I think one of the major problems with this proposal is that nobody actually does it. 0% of the people I've heard propose it (three, if I haven't forgotten any) actually donate (or make any measurable changes to their behavior at all) based on their animal product consumption.

I've seen a few folks argue that by eating animal products they're making gains in somewhat-hard-to-measure areas like mood or productivity, and by making those gains they're either more effective in their EA jobs or end up earning more to give. I don't know of anyone who has actually tested this at all. I wouldn't be horribly surprised if some of them did notice some deleterious effects from switching to veganism. I would be very surprised if they actually became less effective as EAs by going the reducetarian route and purposefully cutting out one meat meal per day or 1-2 full days of meat meals per week.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 26 November 2014 11:38:48AM 6 points [-]

To the extent that switches to lifestyle take attention and willpower, I think it's often a question of whether those attention and willpower had opportunity costs. I agree that this is hard to test, so we should fall back on experience/theory/common sense. You seem to be asserting that there won't be opportunity costs, which seems prima facie surprising.

(This is an argument against pushing people to switch to vegnism; it doesn't provide an argument for pushing people to stop being vegn.)

Comment author: RyanCarey 26 November 2014 12:27:43PM 5 points [-]

I've met a couple of people who donate to effective animal welfare charities so that they can eat meat.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 November 2014 11:45:52AM *  1 point [-]

I think one of the major problems with this proposal is that nobody actually does it.

I spent a few months doing this, so that if I spent X euros on animal products, I would donate X euros to animal welfare charities at the end of the month.

I plan to resume doing so once my monetary situation looks better (also making a bigger one-off donation to "pay off" the time during which I didn't maintain that practice).

I don't know of anyone who has actually tested this at all.

I downgraded from full vegetarianism (and an attempt at full veganism) due to the amount of willpower and occasional well-being it was costing me, especially when battling with depression at the same time.

Comment author: Larks 26 November 2014 10:51:51PM 1 point [-]

that nobody actually does it

I know at least one person who does - or at least did when we discussed it.

Comment author: MatthewDahlhausen 24 November 2014 04:05:19AM *  2 points [-]

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

From what I gather, the "cost" you are referring too is the cost of forgoing the perceived personal benefit/pleasure of eating meat on a per-occasion basis. However, eating a diet with no animal products or much less meat gets a lot easier over time - and the preference flips. Which is why I don't think the social cost on a per-meal basis is really that useful.

Also, my perception is that diets that limit or avoid animal foods are driven by a combination of three reasons: 1) concern for animal suffering 2) environmental harm from most meat production 3) health benefits from eating less meat or certain particularly harmful meats. These reasons all provide a benefit of some sort compared to the standard western diet, and the later two aren't considered here. From my experience, the difficulty of changing my diet to eating a lot less meat was trivial compared to the benefits it brought - especially nutrition knowledge and cooking experience. I eat animal foods on occasion now, but it's from sources that are at the boundary questions of animal ethics - non-sentient animals (scallops), scavenged foods (freeganism), hunted meat, farm animals not explicitly raised for the purpose of meat consumption, etc. Limited animal foods on occasion can provide most of the nutrition benefit, while averting most of the animal suffering.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 25 November 2014 04:31:40PM 6 points [-]

eating a diet with no animal products or much less meat gets a lot easier over time - and the preference flips

Does it, in general? Long term vegetarians often say they find meat squicky now, but ex-vegetarians often say wanting to eat meat again was a big part of why they stopped being veg.

Comment author: bshannon 25 November 2014 12:02:37PM 3 points [-]

I would like to offer advice about your approach. Please seriously consider the opposing position. Consider steel manning. Do some reading about vegans and why they live as they do. Find and talk to some well educated vegans too.

There is a total of one paragraph giving passing mentions of several relatively insignificant reasons to be vegan and yet you dedicate entire paragraphs to each of "I can't supplement", "I might have to waste time talking about my diet" and "Meat tastes good." This doesn't give me the impression that you want to discover which of two possible future states are superior.

So again, deeply consider the best available versions of living as an omnivore and a vegan and choose between the two.

Disclaimer: I am a vegan, though I think this advice is debate and position neutral.

Comment author: Stijn 18 April 2015 07:45:25PM 1 point [-]

I don't follow the logic of the argument, but at first sight it seems scary. Suppose a really hate my ex-girlfriend. In fact, I hate her so much that I want to kill her. I am even willing to pay $6000 to an assassin to do the job. But instead I kill her myself and give the 6000 dollars to SCI to save a life. (I can even steal all her money after I killed her and give it away to effective charities) "If you would happily pay this much (in my case, $6000) to kill someone, you probably shouldn't abstain from killing that person." If this is how effective altruists would defend their meat consumption, it will discredit the whole idea of effective altruism.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 November 2014 08:52:46PM *  0 points [-]

Copy/pasted from Facebook, so please forgive the casual language. A lot of other comments brought up a lot of other issues as well:

I have many issues with the reasoning presented in the article. For example, it's right to consider the potential damage of creatine deficiency, but improper to fail to consider all the potential health benefits that outweigh these potential damages. There are tons of other benefits that the article ignores, like the signalling and idea-spreading benefits of veg*nism.

And one claim that struck me as particularly wild is the assumption that "free range chickens have lives that are at least neutral." Free range chickens live absolutely horrible lives. Here's some of the least gruesome footage (Edit: Forgive my vagueness. Clearly there is footage online of happy chickens. I meant realistic footage of chickens in industrial agriculture.) I can find. Note that's of a "Certified Humane" farm, which is a more stringent qualification than free range.

Also, the whole concept of, "Only perform an action if you it's worth the monetary-equivalent cost to you," seems antithetical, or at least orthogonal, to the concept of effective altruism. If eating animals is worth a few dollars to you, that's probably just selfishness rather than a more cost-effective alternative. The proper EA argument would be that veg*nism causes damage to productivity that outweighs its benefits, which I think is unjustified, but could at least work theoretically.

These are just a few of the many issues I see in the reasoning.

Comment author: Larks 25 November 2014 12:58:17AM 0 points [-]

Here's some of the least gruesome footage I can find.

How hard did you look? Here's the top google hit when I google 'happy chickens. They look pretty happy to me.

Comment author: MasonHartman 26 November 2014 12:51:23AM *  3 points [-]

I can say with ~95% certainty that those hens are pets or are living on a "hobby farm." I've kept chickens in similar conditions; there's just no way it could be profitable as a commercial project. There are a handful of independent farmers using "chicken tractors" to raise their hens on pasture (e.g. Grazin' Angus), but their eggs are extremely difficult to find and run up to $10/dozen.

If you want to understand how commercial animal products are actually produced, Googling "happy chickens" is not going to be helpful.

Comment author: Larks 26 November 2014 02:21:15AM 1 point [-]

I think you misunderstand my point.

  • Jacy said he couldn't find any less gruesome footage
  • I spent about 10 seconds and found some less gruesome footage
  • Suggesting he didn't search very hard.

Yes, there are other arguments one could make. Certainly googling "happy chickens" is not a reasonable way to get an unbiased estimate of chicken happiness. But when someone makes patently false claims about lower bounds, it is an appropriate response.

Comment author: RyanCarey 26 November 2014 12:31:23PM 7 points [-]

It wasn't the most diplomatic way to get across the point though.

Comment author: Larks 08 December 2014 02:28:48AM 1 point [-]

That's a good point. But I'm not sure what would have been a more diplomatic way. My point was not merely that Jacy was mistaken - it was additionally that he was being intentionally dishonest. I had assumed that being somewhat oblique about this would be considered more diplomatic than simply saying "you are being dishonest", but perhaps I was wrong.

I think it's important in general to challenge people who degrade the quality of debate in this way. If you have a suggestion for how to do this better in future I would genuinely appreciate it.

Comment author: MasonHartman 26 November 2014 05:08:17AM 4 points [-]

The point Jacy was contesting was about the happiness of free-range chickens whose eggs could feasibly be subsidized. He didn't pull that quote out of thin air; he was responding to a specific proposal about commercially-raised chickens. Pet chickens are not in any way relevant to the question of whether commercially-raised "free-range" chickens live neutral, positive, or negative lives.

I hope this was an oversight rather than a purposeful red herring.

Comment author: Larks 26 November 2014 11:07:05PM 0 points [-]

A reasonable supposition, but it's easy to find less gruesome videos of large-scale chicken farming. For example, this video of reasonably happy looking commercially farmed chickens was trivial to find on google. So even if we interpret his argument in that way he still can't have looked very hard.

Comment author: PeterMcCluskey 27 November 2014 02:16:46AM 1 point [-]

Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are not very hard to find in Berkeley. Their nutritional advantage over grain-fed eggs was enough for me to switch to them. Yes, they cost $8 to $10 per dozen.

Comment author: MattL 16 June 2016 10:31:33PM *  1 point [-]

Because we live in a speciesist culture, it's easy to talk about animals as if they were things that were made for our pleasure. I'd like to propose a thought experiement that replaces non-human animals with humans because I think it's a useful way to see through the specisism, the belief that humans count morally and other animals don't.

Suppose a hypothetical world in which 99% of the citizens of your country ate human slaves that were raised and killed at age 15 for the purpose of eating their flesh. Suppose citizens drank human milk from slave women who were raped every 2 years so that they could produce the maximum amount of milk, and their babies separated from them at birth so that we could drink the milk intended for their babies. (As for an analogy for eggs, maybe these hypothetical people ate some human slave new-born babies because they made for some tasty recipies.) In this hypothetical world, eating slave products is absolutely normal and socially accepted. Suppose that a tiny fraction of people were vegans -- they refrained from eating any human slave products, because they believed that it's wrong to cause suffering to slaves without a moral justification. Taking pleasure in the taste of their flesh or their milk is not a moral justification, because they don't need to eat human slave products in order to survive and be healthy.

Now let me borrow some of your arguments and apply them to this hypothetical world. I will use quotation signs but I will modify some key phrases in your speech to adapt it to the slave world.

"As far as I can tell the fact that many EAs eat human slaves and their products is surprising to some because they think 'human slaves are probably morally relevant' basically implies 'we shouldn't eat human slaves'. To my ear, this sounds about as absurd as…"

"However whether you can trade refraining from eating human slaves and their products for more effective sacrifices is largely a question of whether you choose to do so. And if not eating human slaves is not the most effective way to inconvenience yourself, then it is clear that you should choose to do so. If you eat human slave flesh now in exchange for suffering some more effective annoyance at another time, you and the world can be better off."

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

"This gives us a price of $0.0003 with the Humane League[…]. 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 human slave flesh, setting aside human slave suffering."


Of course, if they were human slaves, you wouldn't talk lightly about the suffering and death you cause them when you pay someone to raise them for food, and you wouldn't talk about "a more effective way to inconvenience yourself [than to avoid eating them]." It would be immoral. But in our speciesist culture, we are able to talk lightly about the suffering and death that we cause non-human animals. It is no less immoral. By this I'm not saying you or any other non-vegan are a bad person. It's the behavior that is wrong, the person is just a human being doing the best they can with what they have. And the specisist culture makes it particularly hard to see the behavior as wrong. It was my attempt through a human slave analogy to help you see through the specisism.

Are human slaves the same as non-human animals? They are not the same, but that's not the relevant question. The relevant question is, "do human slaves deserve the same moral consideration as non-human animals?" Animals deserve equal consideration for their interests in not suffering and continuing to live as humans do, because they are equally capable of experiencing pain as humans are and are equally interested in avoiding death. I'm sure you have many justifications for eating animals or their products just as I had until recently. This page was a valuable resource for me for seeing through those excuses I had: Eating Animals: Addressing Our Most Common Justifications

As Stijn commented before, you wouldn't think that donating enough so that someone else saved a life would justify you in killing a person you really dislike. One day we'll look at raising animals for food the way we now look at keeping slaves for labour.

I invite you to consider veganism as an opportunity to lead a happy and healthy life that's more ethical. It won't be a sacrifice for more than a tiny fraction of the rest of your life.

Disclaimer: Even though I've been almost vegan for 8 years I've only recently seen my old speciesist views for what they were and stopped all intake of animal products.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 17 June 2016 05:34:52PM 0 points [-]

A meat eater could respond by accepting that if you substituted human slaves for non-human animals, this argument would still be correct, as unpalatable as it seems.

Comment author: MattL 18 June 2016 12:36:40PM 0 points [-]

Michael, I don't see how the argument is correct. It would help me understand your point of view better if you gave me your opinion on this: If I donate enough for an effective charity to save a person's life, and I then go on to shoot dead someone else because I don't like them, is what I've done morally neutral on the whole? And if not, how is that different from the original argument? As you can see, I don't think that act and omission are the same, but does our different point of view boil down to nothing more than that? I'm really trying to understand.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 19 June 2016 02:48:11AM 0 points [-]

I don't endorse the argument I gave, I was just suggesting a possible counter-argument. I don't know that I can do a good job of arguing for it.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 28 February 2015 12:29:29PM 1 point [-]

First I’d like to comment on “this may be hypocritical or otherwise dubious.” To me hypocrisy doesn’t seem morally relevant in itself. In outreach of course others are going to use this factor as a quick-and-dirty heuristic for assessing the feasibility of your proposed way of life, but if you donate to Animal Equality to turn others into vegetarians, they never get to know you.

I’ve recommended to people who didn’t want to become vegetarians that they compensate the harm by donating to a top ACE charity. ACE estimates that a vegetarian saves about 35–144 animals from lives as farmed animals per year, so around 90 maybe, for the sake of simplicity. It also estimates that the top charities save somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 animals from such life-long torture for $1,000, so $.1 to $1 per animal. Since ACE’s estimates are very rough, as ACE details itself, the interventions will usually become more expensive they are successful, and I’m not sure if suffering as a result of egg consumption is already included, I have advised donations in the area of $100 per year to one of the top charities. My trust in such cost-effectiveness estimates is such that I would rather err even higher.

Counterfactually speaking, there is also the harm in not influencing some of your peers to consume less meat, which you have to offset, so significantly more than a $100 donation is probably called for.

Hypocrisy aside (again), I find it intuitive that when a product is very cheap/cost-effective, like animal welfare, we should buy as much as possible of it instead of producing it ourselves. In fact the low price makes it an extremely attractive buy at the moment, which might soon change as more people become vegetarian. (This seems to be related to moral trade and our spiffy new impact certificates.)

On the other hand, this trade-off doesn’t apply to me—and probably not to many others either—as I’ve found vegetarianism to be just about zero effort and probably negative cost from the start. I’ve recently started supplementing creatine, but it’s €11 for €500 g, so at 5 g per day, it’s 11 cents per day. I would guess that this is still offset by my savings due to my not buying expensive meat.

Moreover there is something like the paradox of voting at work here where a tremendous advantage for everyone (democracy or animal welfare) is only achievable when a majority of people do something that to each of them in isolation would not seem cost-effective. Animal welfare may have a greater elasticity than democracy, but seeing how many people in my culture find it inappropriate to eat dogs or even consenting humans, there is probably some critical mass that only needs to be reached in order to establish vegetarianism as the norm. The cost-effectiveness of this factor is probably hard to estimate, like with scientific research.

I’m eliding a number more very convincing arguments for vegetarianism because they were already explained in other comments.

Comment author: Giles 24 November 2014 02:33:39AM 1 point [-]

I've just read through the comments on meteuphoric.

I think arguments about the knock-on effects of vegetarianism/veganism are irrelevant if the charity you believe is the most effective happens to be a vegan outreach charity. The same multiplier would apply to both sides of the comparison.

I think I'm supportive of the case that pain is greater in magnitude than 1 QALY/year. How bad we view pain must surely be anchored to how motivated we are to avoid it. In the ancestral environment, if you're injured do you experience maximal pain for substantially less time on average than it reduces your lifespan? If so I'd expect us to experience a normal year as good and a year of pain as very, very bad.

I agree that the important factor is reducing meat rather than eliminating it entirely. Eliminating that last percent might be quite costly and not worth the "I'm 100% meat free" signalling points.

I didn't know about creatine. That sounds like important information.

I agree about inconvenience budgets being tricky. Avoiding meat could be a good way of building up your tolerance to inconvenience (although admittedly it's not usually marketed that way). It's a good Schelling point (allowing free choice over which inconvenient thing you choose allows you to choose the least actually inconvenient one), and there are social supports for it.

Comment author: AlasdairGives 23 November 2014 03:35:14PM 0 points [-]

Cautious commenting because my failure to understand you is difficult to phrase in a way that does not sound like a troll

But by - moral value of small animals = 0.05 do you mean you would divert a trolley problem to kill a human if it would save significantly more than 20 otherwise doomed chickens?

Or less gotchay - that you if GW rated chicken saving charities that could reliably save a chicken life for $10 and a human life for $250 you would donate your $250 seeking to do the most good to the chicken saving charity?

Comment author: Giles 24 November 2014 01:30:32AM 2 points [-]

I think the 0.05 is a per-day figure, and humans live around 600 times as long as chickens, so it implies indifference between 1 human and 12,000 chickens in the trolley problem. But the OP can correct me here.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 December 2014 01:18:00AM -1 points [-]

I think you should consider normal life span. Then, humans live around 8 to 16 times as long as chickens. "Chickens may live for five to ten years, depending on the breed." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken#General_biology_and_habitat

Comment author: Giles 10 December 2014 04:01:02AM 1 point [-]

The original post was talking about factory farmed chickens, and whether we can reduce their suffering by reducing their population. I don't think the natural lifespan comes into it - however much we reduce the population of farmed chickens by convincing people not to eat them, we're not expecting any of the chickens under consideration to live a full and happy life.

It's hard to frame this as a trolley problem though - we're not actually comparing human deaths to chicken deaths. The trolley would have to kill 1 human along one path and create 12,000 farmed chickens along the other path.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 December 2014 01:45:10AM -1 points [-]

I think many things are missing in your reasoning, above all a deeper engagement with the ethical reasons for and against veg*ism. But you also never mentioned climate change. Research unarguably shows that reduced meat&dairy consumption is essential (or at least extremely useful) to combat climate change effectively. See:

  • "Livestock - Climate Change's Forgotten Sector", Dec 2014, Chatham House
  • "IPCC: rapid carbon emission cuts vital to stop severe impact of climate change", Nov 2014, The Guardian
  • "The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets", May 2014, Climatic Change Journal
  • "Livestock's Long Shadow", 2006, FAO

Pollution and climate change will increasingly create problems for humans and other sentient beings alike. Good luck factoring that in in your painstaking calculations :)