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tyrael comments on Why EA events should be (at least) vegetarian - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: tyrael 13 November 2015 05:58:14PM *  5 points [-]

An alternative, although generally less preferable, policy, if someone really insists that they need to eat animal bodies at the event, would be "no birds or fish," because these directly cause much more harm due to the small size of each individual.

Edit: As Jeff points out, there are some plausible arguments for why the difference of harm might not be as strong in total as the size consideration suggests. Still, almost all animal-focused EAs think eating birds/fish does more harm than eating cows/pigs, so I think it's still a better policy than not having one at all.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 13 November 2015 07:59:01PM *  8 points [-]

I supported not serving meat at big EA conferences where 1) food is purchased collectively by the conference; 2) symbolic and media effects are greatest; 3) the alternative is simply serving farmed chicken/cow/pig/fish.

For less official events and ones where individual purchases are distinguished (e.g. restaurant orders), the argument seems much weaker to me.

Once you start assessing things in terms of amount of harm while allowing animal products to be served, using Animal Charity Evaluators' figures you could do better by requiring a donation of $0.02 per omnivorous diner. To counter the (very plausible) possibility their figures are much too optimistic, and to get a much larger net benefit than the harm of increased farm demand, make it $1. That can be either an extra fee charged when submitting dietary preferences in advance, or a 'tip jar' passed around at a restaurant.

I suspect this may actually be a better norm to spread: many more people pay extra for (not really) "humane meat" and eggs than go veg*n, with total spending of many billions of dollars, vastly more than all cultured meat research or animal advocacy funding. Redirecting a substantial portion of that to leveraged animal protection charity would have massive effects. And the norm is easier to spread because it has far lower personal costs, addressing this problem in the OP:

"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."

Also, the 'indulgence/tip jar for meat' scheme would result in a reduction in farmed animal suffering with the meal, which should help with this:

"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?"

Comment author: zdgroff 13 November 2015 08:28:39PM 7 points [-]

I don't see how the three distinctions you point out are particularly relevant to:

1) the harm to camaraderie in the EA community 2) the harm to our ability to reason objectively about decisions affecting nonhuman animals

Both of these seem fully in effect even if we can individually order parts of grass-fed cows at a private dinner with other EAs.

Regarding the donation versus meat eating (and I think this would apply to the coffee example too), even if the donation norm is a better one to spread, it may not be the better one to attempt to spread because it is much harder to spread. It's hard to imagine there being a particularly strong norm that "at any EA event, those who eat animals must pay $X" while it's easy to imagine a norm taking hold that at any EA event, people do not eat animals.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 13 November 2015 09:22:26PM *  5 points [-]

1) the harm to camaraderie in the EA community

Yes, this is the best reason not to do it. But it would also be nice if people could embrace Pareto-improving deals that reduce farm animal demand even more as signs of camaraderie. Would freegan consumption be very different for this?

2) the harm to our ability to reason objectively about decisions affecting nonhuman animals

The study that everyone (including me) cites on that reported a weak effect of thinking about eating animals leading to reduced reported belief in those animals' consciousness possibly to feel better about themselves.

The people I know who make donations to animal charities to offset meat consumption (with extra to spare) and on net reduce demand for factory farming almost all accept animal consciousness, and offsetting makes acknowledging animal consciousness and well-being less personally costly or threatening.

It's hard to imagine there being a particularly strong norm that "at any EA event, those who eat animals must pay $X" while it's easy to imagine a norm taking hold that at any EA event, people do not eat animals

Seems easy to imagine for me.

Lots of events have this setup for carbon emissions, and far more have 'different food options for different prices.' On a dietary preferences form where people can ask for 'no peanuts' or the like, one has an extra box with [+$X] next to it, just like one might have a box for including alcohol, or adding banquet attendance to a conference attendance fee. If someone checks the box and pays the money, then that amount is ordered and accessible with the ticket.

If people can't pay in advance and an organizer is creating food they can make the extra donations and announce the offsets.

For a restaurant get-together the invitations can announce the collection plate will be passed around for $1.

Mechanically these are all pretty manageable for one person or group organizing a dinner to implement.

" even if the donation norm is a better one to spread, it may not be the better one to attempt to spread because it is much harder to spread"

Why think it is so hard to spread when pseudo-'humane meat' has spread so much farther than veg*nism, and carbon offsets have spread so much further than things like air travel boycotts?

Whole Foods asks for charitable contributions every time a customer makes a purchase, and could raise for animal charities or cultured meat research.

Many branded products specify that a certain percentage of sales goes to a certain charity. Ethos at Starbucks, for example:

Every time you buy a bottle of Ethos® Water, you contribute $.05US ($.10CN in Canada) to the Ethos® Water Fund, part of the Starbucks Foundation.

Imagine Whole Foods having a similar line of animal products funding highly effective interventions.

Comment author: zdgroff 13 November 2015 10:24:12PM 2 points [-]

1) I think freegan consumption actually would be very different. You're not paying for the torture and killing. Knowing that would make it far less salient I would think. Plus, the whole reason it harms camaraderie is that we don't believe it's Pareto-improving since the norm of offsetting seems less sticky.

2) I don't really think belief in animal consciousness shows that people are thinking rationally. It's a pretty low and trivial bar.

Regarding the offsetting norm, do you have evidence that offsets have traveled further than avoiding carbon-intensive technology? I know many people who bike, use public transit, live in an urban area, etc. much of which is to some degree driven by the carbon emissions of cars. I can't think of anyone off the top of my head who uses offsets.

It would be great - and far preferable in my view - for Whole Foods to do this offset system instead of 'humane' meat (someone should propose this to them actually), but I would definitely prefer that they stop selling meat entirely. I can't imagine the offsets option would have as strong a normative effect as that.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 13 November 2015 10:35:44PM *  1 point [-]

I was thinking of 'green power' purchase programs and airline offsets as well as things like carbon-neutral data centers using credits. And contrasting that to boycotts rather than marginal reductions. [There's also a huge involuntary credit market, of course, which is more clearly larger than the voluntary responses but isn't directly comparable].

I can't imagine the offsets option would have as strong a normative effect as that.

There is a normative effect of doing offsets in getting others to do offsets. If each player doing offsets has more effect than each player changing its own production/consumption, then that can be a win. And the offset charities presumably have normative effects. Would Whole Foods going back to being vegetarian do more than $20MM or $100MM to the most effective animal charities?

Comment author: zdgroff 13 November 2015 10:49:29PM 2 points [-]

Yes, I can't imagine an effective animal charity doing as much good as Whole Foods going back to being vegetarian.

Regarding the normative effects of offsets charities, I think the cost effectiveness figures are far too optimistic here (the most reasonable ones apply to corporate outreach, which I think has the smallest spillovers). I don't see a case for the effectiveness of a donation outweighing the increased contagiousness of a dietary norm.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 13 November 2015 11:00:09PM *  2 points [-]

I don't see a case for the effectiveness of a donation outweighing the increased contagiousness of a dietary norm.

How much do you think it costs to get 3 people to adopt the dietary norm (with associated follow-on effects)?

And what do you think of the prospects for things like meat substitute R&D, cultured meat/eggs or this chicken-sexing technology?

Comment author: tyrael 13 November 2015 09:07:25PM *  2 points [-]

As mentioned in the post, I don't think preventing direct harm is the major argument for having EA events be vegetarian, so it seems weird that you've chosen that argument to rebut and used it as evidence that the overall case seems "much weaker."

Regardless, I don't think the 'tip jar' or offset style norms are better than vegetarianism, mainly because they seem much less salient and harder to maintain. It seems difficult to remember to bring out a tip jar, coordinate the donations, etc. at every EA event. Simply not purchasing animal bodies seems much more straightforward.

Moreover, I think the offsets norm does even worse than individual consumption change in terms of provoking moral outrage and nonlinear change, and that the personal cost of serving vegetarian food at EA events is sufficiently low, as argued in the OP. The personal cost of year-round personal dietary change is what seems troubling.

Also, offsets seem weird and confusing to the general population. Vegetarian events is a clear statement from EA that we oppose the suffering of farmed animals that's much easier to understand.

I don't think the offsets would do much to relieve the discomfort people have at seeing their friends consume animal bodies. It doesn't seem to remove the broader norm-issues. It just seems to potentially alleviate the direct harm consideration, which, again, isn't the important point here.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 13 November 2015 09:36:35PM *  3 points [-]

"As mentioned in the post, I don't think preventing direct harm is the major argument for having EA events be vegetarian, so it seems weird that you've chosen that argument to rebut and used it as evidence that the overall case seems "much weaker.""

You seem to have misread my first two paragraphs. First I said I bought the argument for not serving meat at big conferences with merged tabs and elevated symbolic value. I then wrote:

For less official events and ones where individual purchases are distinguished (e.g. restaurant orders), the argument seems much weaker to me

At less official events the media/symbolic impacts are smaller, and when tabs are not pooled people don't have to feel that they are funding evil or violating deontology. So the argument is 'much weaker' for dinner with some EA friends. That is about symbolism rather than direct harm.

I don't think preventing direct harm is the major argument for having EA events be vegetarian, so it seems weird that you've chosen that argument to rebut

I mentioned harm underneath a comment where you suggested 'no fish or chicken' as an inferior alternative, on the basis of lower direct harm (and presumably that it signals trying to have smaller animal impacts).

Also, offsets seem weird and confusing to the general population. Vegetarian events is a clear statement from EA that we oppose the suffering of farmed animals that's much easier to understand.

See my response to Zach.

and that the personal cost of serving vegetarian food at EA events is sufficiently low, as argued in the OP. The personal cost of year-round personal dietary change is what seems troubling.

And I said I am much more supportive for big events than for small events. But as one generalizes to smaller and more frequent events, the two converge. I would like to be able to have a dinner get-together (of mostly effective altruists) where veg*n and offsetting omnivore friends are both happy, and which will reduce rather than increase demand for factory farming. That could be 50+ times a year. Sharing a kitchen and dining room table with (EA) housemates can be far more frequent than that.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 13 November 2015 06:07:45PM *  1 point [-]

There's not full agreement among EAs here. Yes, birds and fish are smaller, but some people think mammals matter more.

EDIT: Sorry, I misremembered this. The EAs who think "eat beef instead of chicken" might result in more animal suffering aren't going just from "mammal" status but also from environmental concerns:

I'm somewhat less gung-ho about these numbers than when I first wrote the piece because

  • Brain complexity matters somewhat and isn't incorporated. I think 40 chickens matter many times more than a cow, but not fully 40 times, whereas these figures imply ~40 times more suffering per kg of chicken than kg of beef.

  • In practice, indirect effects dominate, though of course, they're also much harder to figure out. Beef is good if it reduces wild-animal habitat but probably net bad by contributing to climate change. On balance it may be net bad if climate change dominates.

Whatever the sign is of the indirect effects, indirect effects should be more similar across animals than the suffering figures are across animals, since cows and chickens don't differ by ~40 times in their environmental impacts. Hence, these neglected factors should tend to drive the impact estimates (much) closer together.

-- http://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/

and

The reason I preferentially eat chicken, eggs, and seafood, over mammals is twofold:

  • greenhouse gas emissions are 10 fold (or more) less for chicken, fish, and seafood

  • cows and pigs are not only much more intelligent, but also more emotional. I believe that they suffer more because they are smarter.

Having said that, I only buy free range and ethically farmed chicken. I eat mammals too, but very rarely, and only ethically farmed pigs/cows.

-- https://www.reddit.com/r/Foodforthought/comments/3fer63//ctnzbc1

Either way, I think this isn't settled.

Comment author: Gina_Stuessy  (EA Profile) 13 November 2015 06:28:40PM 7 points [-]

All vertebrates have similar physiological pain receptors (http://philosophyforprogrammers.blogspot.com/2010/11/who-feels-pain.html), and it seems like there's only a (possible) significant difference in ability to feel pain when you get down to invertebrates, like insects.

Comment author: Adam_Shriver 25 November 2015 02:29:45PM 1 point [-]

"All vertebrates have similar physiological pain receptors ." This might be true, but doesn't really decide the issue. Pain receptors are in the peripheral nervous system, but pain is mediated by the brain. In humans, there are many cases where we have activation in pain receptors without consciously feeling pain (soldiers during battle), and similarly there are many cases where we consciously feel pain without any activation in pain receptors (phantom limb pain, chronic pains). Also, it's worth noting that the link you provide refers to a table in Gary Varner's 1998 book. I'm a former grad student of his, and I don't think even then he would have said the argument for pain is "just as strong," in other groups as in mammals, but he does have an updated table in his 2012 book "Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition" that incorporates some of the points I mentioned above. And, in particular, he writes (p. 123) that "...the argument by analogy for pain in non-human animals is strongest in the case of our fellow mammals, and weaker for all of the other taxa." He does still conclude that the best place to draw the line is between vertebrates and invertebrates, but he's also not saying the arguments are equally strong in al cases.

Comment author: tyrael 13 November 2015 06:11:44PM *  5 points [-]

I don't know of any plausible basis besides arbitrary taxonomy that mammals would be that much more morally valuable (several hundred chickens per cow). Some night say the neocortex, but it seems moon-mammals have functionally analogous structures like the dorsal ventricular ridge.

Comment author: Adam_Shriver 25 November 2015 02:19:06PM 1 point [-]

Though I think that fish and chickens probably feel pain, and that we certainly should base our moral decisions on the assumption that they do feel pain, it also seems pretty clear that there is a stronger argument by analogy in the case of mammals. In particular, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula cortex play a central role in what is known as the affective dimension of pain in humans and other mammals. The most striking evidence for this is that humans with lesions to these areas will report "feeling pain but no longer finding it unpleasant," but there also is extensive evidence from fMRI on humans and other mammals, single-unit recordings on humans during surgeries (and on other mammals during invasive research), direct stimulation (in the case of the insula) on humans and other mammals, lesion studies on other mammals, and knock-out and knock-in studies on mammalian brain structures.

This is relevant because all and only mammals have these brain structures (the cingulate and insula). There aren't any particular behavioral responses to noxious stimuli that you would see in, say, a mouse, but not in a chicken, which is why I think we should assume that they also consciously feel pain. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that saying "organism M probably feels pain in a manner similar to humans because M has all of the same brain regions which seem to be doing the same things during noxious stimulation and M also has behavioral similarities" is a stronger argument by analogy than saying "organism M probably feels pain because it has behavioral similarities to humans." So even if the best place to draw the line is between vertebrates and invertebrates, we shouldn't confuse that claim with the claim that the evidence is equally strong in both cases. Whether the evidence is strong enough to outweigh the large difference in numbers between eating beef versus chicken, probably not, though I'm not exactly sure how to weigh the "probability of similarity" from arguments by analogy.