When should an Effective Altruist be vegetarian?

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.

41 responses to “When should an Effective Altruist be vegetarian?

  1. If averting a meat meal were approximately as good as donating $1.40-$45.98 to SCI, then everyone should obviously (regardless of whether they personally become veg*an) donate to the most effective animal charities (at least, in preference to global poverty charities). Your linked evaluation suggests THL averts hundreds of thousands of meat meals for $1000. Very loosely, averting a meat meal would have to be worth <$.07 for animal charities and global poverty charities to be competitive.

    (That is, if one averted meat meal is equal to giving $.07 to SCI, then a $1000 donation to THL, which averts approximately 3400 animal lives, which is equivalent to 14,000 meals using your calculations above, is equal to a $1000 donation to SCI.)

    I think your uncertainty multiplier of 0.0004 is much too low. In particular:

    Demand for the existence of vegetarian options (in restaurants or stores) causes companies to develop them, thus making it less costly for vegetarians to be vegetarian and reducing meat consumption by more than the amount of meat you personally stop eating. For instance if a restaurant starts offering a vegetarian option, non-vegetarians will order it. I'd put this as a 1.2 multiplier, at least.

    I regard it as very, very obvious that lives in factory farms are not worth living (I am reluctant to assign 1% to the probability that they are.) Do you really think there is an 80% chance that this is the case?

    Vegetable production does have negative effects on animals. However, most of the crops grown in the United States are converted into feed for factory-farmed animals. It takes 10,000 calories of crops to feed an animal to create 1000 calories of food for a human. So the negative effects on animals of crop farming is /also/ reduced, in fact dramatically, by not eating meat.

    In general there are substantial environmental costs to meat consumption. I would personally guess that half the harm done by a meat meal is harm done indirectly by the production of the crops that were fed to the animal, and by antibiotic resistance and so forth. That'd be a multiplier of 2 in your equation.

    I think there's a substantial probability than an animal's experience of torture is as bad as a human's experience of torture (not that animals are generally of comparable moral value, but that torturing an animal is as bad as torturing a person, less knock-on effects.) I comparably feel like torturing babies is probably as evil as torturing adults even though babies aren't people. And I think that to some degree you've built in your intuition that animals are worth less with the assumption that saving one year of life for a person is at least as good as averting one year of torture for an animal; would you say that buying one QALY is as good as averting one year of torture, if both are people?

    So for the moral value of small animals, I'd assign it much more than .05, because I am very uncertain of how much it matters but how morally important chickens are, generally, doesn't seem like the relevant question. 0.4?

    I also don't think human global poverty charities have any effect whatsoever on the far future. Do you really think SCI has ten times the impact of an twinSCI that is stipulated not to affect the far future?

    On the other hand I think you underestimate the rigorous estimates effect – I expect that a rigorous estimate would make animal causes look even weaker. 0.8 might be better.

    So that suggests to me that the multiplier is .4*.5*2*.99*1.2*.8. = .4. That puts one meatless meal in the range of $.75-$25 to SCI. Even working with your assumption about the moral value of animals, we're in the range of $.09 – $2.70. Which is the range that justifies donating to animal causes over SCI, though not necessarily the range that would demand one become a vegetarian.

    (Most of the veg*an EAs I know want EAs to donate to effective animal charities far more than they want EAs to become veg*an. But in practice, virtually no one who isn't veg*an donates to effective animal charities.)

  2. Note that “being a vegetarian” implies zero meat consumption, but even considerable meat reduction can be far less inconvenient than complete meat avoidance.

    I would second kpier’s point about meat-free demand causing restaurants to offer more vegetarian options. Perhaps more importantly, veg*ans might function as early adopters of new product lines that close the inconvenience and health gaps between animal products and non-animal products. This could be a multiplier.

    Lastly, wild-animal suffering and replacement effects from agriculture are probably considerable. Carl Shulman and Brian Tomasik have both outlined some quantitative estimates of this.

  3. Anecdote: I recall that Jacob Lurie was a vegetarian in high school, and I have no reason to believe he took creatine supplements at the time. He could very well have just had that much brainpower to spare, but I’ll nevertheless speculate that he did not take a ~5 point IQ hit from his behavior.

    I haven’t been able to avoid meat without sacrificing throughput, though. Maybe there’s just a “hump” I need to get over, after which everything will feel fine; if I could fork off enough copies of myself I’d want one to test that hypothesis (though it would be more out of curiosity than out of a belief in its importance). But for now, there are higher priorities.

    There clearly is a lot of human variation in how physical and cognitive performance is affected by diet, and a significant amount of recent genetic selection has involved adaptation to local food sources.

    • Yes, there’s a hump. I used to get cravings for meat after about a day. Finally I decided to go a month without it just to prove to myself that I could, and it worked.

  4. Why make create an argument for an imaginary vegetarian? There are enough rationalists who are vegetarian that you could probably solicit actual reasons instead of starting with the premise that vegetarians do what they do because they don’t believe that you can leverage inconvenience (essentially you are starting with the assumption that vegetarians do not believe in effective altruism and then arguing against that).

  5. Vegetarians tend to be more intelligent and longer-lived than meat eaters. Therefore – other things being equal – EAs who are vegetarian might be expected to do good more intelligently and more effectively for longer. Of course, many confounding variables potentially muddy the waters here. But might the comparative IQ gap between vegetarians and meat-eaters – seven IQ points here in the UK – widen further if vegetarians were to take creatine supplements? Quite possibly; it would be good to see a large well-controlled trial.

    Inconvenience? Becoming a strict vegan is mildly inconvenient in today’s society. Merely going vegetarian leaves just as much time for pursuing other EA projects.

    More importantly, however, the nonhuman animals abused in factory-farms are as sentient – and demonstrably as sapient – as human infants and prelinguistic toddlers. Shouldn’t EA’s be exploring ways systematically to help other sentient beings rather than actively harming them? Couldn’t the money spent systematically harming sentient beings be more effectively used elsewhere? I don’t understand how hurting, harming and killing sentient beings for frivolous reasons (“But I like the taste!”) is consistent with being an EA. Recall that factory-farmed nonhuman animals are so desperate they have to be declawed, debeaked, tail-docked, castrated (etc) to prevent them mutilating themselves and each other. Only profoundly distressed humans self-mutilate.

    Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are the source of one of the most severe and readily avoidable forms of suffering in the world today. I’d like to think EAs will be in the forefront of the campaign to get them shut down and outlawed.

  6. Shouldn’t you take into account the larger-scale economical and environmental consequences of vegetarianism? Ignoring them seems like an error. For a contrast, I recently had the chance to listen to a spokesperon from WWF, who claimed that just by cutting meat consumption the world could become carbon-neutral. I have no proof for this specific statement, but it’s a well known fact that meat is an extremely resource-inefficent food source. Have you considered the welfare of future human individuals in your calculations? They may have to deal with the consequences of unsustainable aspects of the current economy, as well as have reduced wellbeing because of being forced to involuntarily change their food consumption habits – rather being free to give up inefficient and morally questionable consumption voluntarily, as we can now.

    Even today, factory chickens are not the only sentient beings that suffer from our meat consumption. Consider all the wildlife displaced because of the extra territory required for agriculture to raise food for farm animals. Considered all the small animals killed during harversting of e.g. wheat fields.

  7. Great article Katja. Maybe you should cross-post it to the EA forum, as we’re trying to drive traffic there, and I think a lot of people would find this interesting?

  8. Meat consumption is a very cultural issue, and heavily promoted by the industries it supports. Changing the culture by setting an example has huge potential health and environmental benefits, and is a good example of direct action to improve the world, vs directing numbers on a screen on your bank website to a charity.

  9. Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments! I’m fairly busy for the next little while, so will respond to them or rethink the relevant bits where appropriate in the future. Don’t take my non-responsiveness as disinterest.

  10. Inconvenience budgets are trickier than financial budgets because willpower and self-control are somewhat like muscles that expand the more they’re used. Of course, there is also a limit to their size, and in the short run, spending more effort on one thing takes it away from another. And I myself am not an especially good model of building willpower. :)

    In any case, I understand where you’re coming from. There are many things I could do better that would prevent lots of suffering, but my laziness or selfishness gets in the way. What one eats is not unique in this regard.

  11. Sorry if my response is a bit rambling and not cohesive. I try to make several (separate) points.

    First off, as other commenters have pointed out, 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 position is surely false.

    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.

  12. Why do you assume that a vegetarian’s only altruistic posture is to relieve animal suffering? That is more typical of vegans, and yeah, many of them (particularly new adherents) are known to be rather humorless.

    Some of us “rational” vegetarians adopted the diet due to the environmental devastation wrought by a meat based diet. We don’t eat meat so that our great grandchildren may still have access to clean water and air. Etc.

    Also, don’t presume our meals (and lives) are austere or less than whole. We don’t agonize and waste time screening our lives of all meat products. We do the best we can and probably don’t spend any more time than you do, reading ingredient lists on the back of the (few) packaged food products we buy.

    Ever read _The China Study_? Maybe you should. The only way they can get cancer cells to grow in a lab is to feed them meat based protein. With vegetable proteins, the cells die.

  13. Weighing the implications of one’s own fallibility is important too. What’s the worst that follows from going vegetarian if, say, Eliezer Yudkowsky is right and nonhuman animals (and human babies) aren’t conscious? Mild personal inconvenience and perhaps marginally diminished taste satisfaction at some mealtimes. OK, perhaps the extra 10 seconds that one spends reading the product-label at the supermarket could notionally be spent on other EA work; but this sort of consideration becomes a bit fanciful. On this sort of calculation, what about the opportunity cost of the time carnivorous EAs spend defending meat-eating? By contrast, if other EAs are correct and what humans doing to other sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses is ethically catastrophic, then the implications are momentous.

    Sometimes epistemic humility is in order. Might not this be one of them?

  14. Pingback: Want to Summon Less Animal Suffering? | Compass Rose

  15. Great post! But the conclusion doesn’t seem very robust. E.g. if an animal is worth 1/20th a human and humans eat several hundred animals annually, the sign of GiveWell’s charities becomes negative and being veg is infinitely better.

    (Not to say that SCI is actually negative, just that the conclusion doesn’t seem as strong as you’re presenting.)

  16. What Will said above.

    Not, however, David’s “Inconvenience? Becoming a strict vegan is mildly inconvenient in today’s society.” Ha! Maybe if you never go out with friends to restaurants, and if you still have friends who invite you over after orienting them to a daunting list of rules (no egg, no honey, no dairy, which largely means no bread, cake, etc.). I knew one vegan; she stopped trying to eat outside of her home.

    Also, what AC said above – there are reasons besides “animal welfare” altruism to engage in this behavior, but the signaling is perhaps not always what you think. In my case, it has been signaling to a mostly hostile audience (God, guns, ‘n’ country!) for the sake of the curious who can see that people in leadership positions may make the choice without serious repercussion. I’m a passive proselytizer – they come to me.

    Frankly, I think there is rather more animal happiness in the world because of the meat industries. Guessing that animals are roughly happy throughout their lives; and are neither happy nor unhappy when dead; and that the transition from life to death, especially in a Temple Grandin-designed slaughterhouse, is vanishingly short and relatively painless; and also guessing that there are more animals being raised around the world than would be the case if we were all vegetarians (not accounting for displaced animals); I surmise that there is more animal happiness than there would be otherwise.

    With regard to this: “vegetarianism means spending a bit more time searching for vegetarian alternatives, …”, and to reinforce yboris’ comments, may I suggest this post about how learning affects diets? Your assumptions about it are based upon your view as an outsider, not actual experience.

  17. Eric, note I was _contrasting_ the extreme ease of going vegetarian with the hassle of becoming a strict vegan. Just as EAs who aim to give an ambitious percentage of their income to EA causes run the risk of “burn-out” – and ending up not donating at all – perhaps there is a similar risk from embracing the stricter forms of veganism. None of this applies to going vegetarian.

    The claim that “there is rather more animal happiness in the world because of the meat industries” is Orwellian. Factory-farming is inherently abusive. The reason that nonhumans animals are declawed, debeaked, tail-docked, castrated (etc) isn’t because factory-farmed animals are happy. Rather, it’s because otherwise in their desperation they mutilate themselves and each other. Please reconsider.

  18. In relation to objections to David’s notion of “mild Inconvenience”… In comparison to being grinded up alive (common practice in the egg-industry, organic or not) or being castrated without anasthetics (for instance a common practice in my own country, Denmark, one of the largest exporters of pig meat, and a country that takes great pride in being one of the best countries when it comes to animal “welfare” — and the sad thing is that “we” probably are; and one could go on with horrible examples of common practices) the inconvenience of being vegan is mild indeed.

    Here are two books that I have written related to the subject that argue that, if you are an “effective altruist” or utilitarian of any kind — indeed, if you just care the least bit about non-human animals, and even if you just care about human beings (second chapter in the first one) — you go vegan.


    Apropos overcoming bias…

  19. Katja Grace & Friends,

    What a great post with excellent comments. My wife and I became vegan 3.5 years ago. With that said there have been some exceptionally interesting instances of unexplained phenomena in human growth and increased mental and physical capacity that I attribute to my new diet. In regards to the work you are doing in AI, which is how I found your blog, I look forward to reading more starting with your thesis on Algorithmic Progress.

    It should also be noted that I have not owned a car for the last 15 years. In light of attempting to live an altruistic life. Although, I do travel on public transportation, including planes and will rent a car when needed.

    Back to the increased mental capacity, having studied insect colonization and the intricate communication systems they possess it is evident that humanity has not possessed anything nearly as sophisticated until the invention of the internet. That is unless telepathy is a hidden function of the undeveloped adolescent mind and as I slowly remove all the toxins from my body, more and more evidence is starting to matriculate to demonstrate that telepathy is available to humans. But, like any skill requires training and preparation as it is quite a burden to bear and from my few instances of telepathic experience an on off switch is necessary. At least until controlled and targeted telepathy can be learned.

    It should further be noted that once one believes in reincarnation, becoming vegan makes even more sense as I sure do not wish to return to this planet as an animal in a factory farm. It is also helpful if you acknowledge that there may be other animals on this planet that are smarter, kinder and funnier than we humans, such as whales & elephants. Then with that noted is that hard to say that all living beings are each individual capable of the same level of intelligence and that it is not a pre-determined onset from birth. What if that intelligence is transferable from lifetime to lifetime.

    It should also be noted that 60% of the population in India is Vegan. Is it no coincidence that they also host the largest population of humans in the world? Are they not similar to a large insect colony?

    Back to the dialogue of telepathy, one can also note that emotional responses in densely populated concentrations of people are quickly shared, even perhaps faster than a tweet. Might there also be a possible critical mass that needs to be achieved along with a purity of fuel, of thought and a balance of chemistry in order for humans to truly achieve their fullest potential. Much like a race car runs on high octane fuel, I guess the sayin’ could be true you are what you eat? In which case that makes me a black bean.

    So, I am not quite sure how you might quantify this in numbers. But, I will tell you that no matter what life I am in the value of my spirit and soul is ∞.

    I look forward to further exchanges of ideas as you and your team pursue this artificial intelligence, but I am certain that human intelligence is capable of growing faster and that these computers and internet of things are like the training wheels on a bicycle and one day we will not need them.

    As it is my hope that one day we will all get to live again in a world of absolute peace.


    Jesse Arnold Miller

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  21. “‘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.”

    I believe in that usage “signaling” means “signaling to others that you’re the sort of person that cares about those things”.

    The implication being that having them notice/believe that is more important in that case than actually being the person signaled.

    (“I give to charity because it will improve people’s opinion of me in whatever way” is signaling behavior.

    “I give to charity because I want to effect the changes that the charity promises” is not.

    That the latter also has the effect of the former is, of course, why the former works at all.)

  22. First, I love your life mission to save us from ourselves and your unconventional flights of reason, you are awesome . . . BUT . . . The convoluted economic methodology used to place a value on life is probably the most disturbing aspect of this. As a naturalist, your assumption that brain size is a determining value factor and that human IQ = value, we can only hope is not taken up by A.I. as an actionable formula for dealing with us. Have you killed an animal? I challenge moralist meat eaters to kill their family pet and eat it. After you have taken a life that you cherish with your own hands then talk to me about the morality of eating meat. I’m not a strict vegetarian, but there is no reductionist rationalization for our treatment of each other or nature.

    Have you witnessed natural animal behavior first hand for an extended period of time. Certainly you see how humans behave. Our behaviors pale in contrast to even many insects, especially the predators. Birds benefit from 100s of millions of years of direct evolution. They are extraordinary. The immorality of our factory farming alone cancels out any argument you present. Dollars and cents in actuality have no place in moral and philosophical debates. Inconvenience of preparing and finding non-meat alternatives, your loss of productivity and peer pressure, how many other meaningless arguments do you need to devise to rationalize the holocaust that is modern animal husbandry? Keep up the good work.

  23. Sorry I went off on a bit of a rant. I nurture intimate relationships with natural systems (not that kind :-) and find such a depth of relational intelligence in other animals that it never ceases to blow my mind. It is so sad to me that every other living thing must live in fear of the supposedly most intelligent species.

  24. In a certain sense this comparison is an apples to oranges one. By donating to AMF, you *save* a human life (that may or may not have been worth living). By not eating meat, you *avert* a chicken life.

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  26. Katja, on the topic of personal ethics: can you point us to any ethical calculations you’ve published on when it is acceptable (or even encouraged — because hey, EAs have needs too) for effective altruists to rape and/or murder human animals (so long as they’re smart about it and don’t get caught or punished)? I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Paying to harm other sentient beings isn’t altruism – effective or otherwise. Writing to encourage other EAs actively to harm other sentient beings runs a risk worse than being ineffective, namely of actively doing harm.
      All of us sometimes make errors of judgement: I very much hope you’ll reconsider this post Katja.

      • David, thanks for your thoughts. Do you subscribe to a distinction between acts and omissions? For instance, do you treat a person causing an animal to die so that they have a nice lunch as different from their ignoring an opportunity to save an animal that would worsen their lunch? (I’m trying to diagnose our disagreement)

        • Some acts of omission are morally indistinguishable from acts of commission. If you stumble across a toddler drowning in a shallow pond, then simply walking by is as bad as if you’d pushed the child into the water yourself. But for sure, other “acts of omission” are more complex, nuanced and ambiguous.

          However, one reason for _not_ focusing on the “grey zone” of moral ambiguity here is that the choice with meat-eating is so uncomplicated.
          By choosing to buy, say, a hamburger over a veggieburger, one is actively paying for another sentient being to be harmed – i.e. it’s the opposite of altruism, effective or otherwise. One isn’t wrestling with some ethical dilemma, or calculating the opportunity-cost of the purchase: could I do more good donating to a human or non-human animal charity? Nor is it a case of worrying about the risk of indirectly paying for exploitation at several times removed [e.g. How do I know that exploitative child-labour wasn’t involved at some stage in the production of this item? Finding out could be time-consuming.]

          Despite holding strict veganism as the ideal, IMO one can make an EA case being merely vegetarian or quasi-vegan while supporting the closure of factory-farms and slaughterhouses. If one becomes a quasi-vegan, how strict or lax? (etc) Do I enjoy optimal health on a vegan, quasi-vegan or vegetarian diet – or does it make no difference? (etc). But whether or not EAs should be vegetarian or meat-eaters doesn’t deserve to be dignified with the term “Moral Dilemma”. Please do reconsider Katja!

    • You do realize that thought experiments like the trolley problem or torture vs. dust specks are all about killing and torturing humans? There are also many often discussed real dilemmas concerning how to use military force ethically, or which police violence should be condoned, which condemned. We all let human children die, there is no speciesism in the mere fact that trade-offs and opportunity costs exist.

      But we do live in speciesist societies, so for rape and (selfish) murder, we already have criminal and social incentives and so most readers won’t gain anything from them. Perhaps some people will get an extra thrill out of rape vs. consensual sex, or perhaps some pedophiles are fixated on illegal targets, but this is hardly enough of a crowd to give explicit calculations for, and Katja probably isn’t among them.

      Finally, I have never heard of a non-rapist suffering from iron or B12 deficiency for not raping enough human animals.

  27. Bringing this back to effectiveness:

    If all (most/etc) meat-eaters gave a few pennies to the Humane League every time they partook, would we live in a world in which all (most/etc) humans didn’t eat animals (the largest instance of direct human-caused/ameliorable suffering today)? By definition, no*.

    If all (most/etc) meat-eaters stopped eating meat, would we live in such a world? By definition, yes.

    That is the difference between preventing suffering caused by malaria (which can presumably be solved by throwing enough pennies at the problem) VERSUS suffering caused by humanity’s direct, intentional acts (e.g., factory farming) — which requires more than pennies; it requires actual flesh-and-blood humans to change their real-life behavior, yourself and Katja included.

    And zooming out from the particulars, It’s worth looking at how people / entities with their own motivations have unilaterally used “offset logic” over history, and how well it’s served us:

    – Indulgence granting (for money) by the Catholic Church, so transparently corrupt that it helped spawn the Reformation

    – Carbon offsets, corporate giving, and the like touted by all manner of companies engaging in unethical behavior, in marketing / PR campaigns, which is viewed as the cynical fig leaf it is by most consumers

    These examples and Katja’s all share a certain…audacity that what the author wanted all along — surprise! — also happens to be ethical. I would hope that anyone claiming to be an effective altruist would think twice before joining their company. When there is no strong legal check against our behavior, I would counsel that we err away from selfishness rather than in favor of it — and if we fail or choose not to in certain cases (as we all do, myself included), we admit it rather than engaging in sophistry and sullying the ideas of utilitarianism and effective altruism in the process.

    * Unless people are paying the Humane League to convince _themselves_ to stop eating meat — which would make no sense; for people who are twisting themselves in logical knots to avoid doing the right thing, an education/PR campaign by an NGO is not going to impact them.

    • You are certainly right that many “ethical offset” approaches have historically been transparent fig leaves or counterproductive, and if they replace more ethical or effective actions, there is value in discouraging them.

      But this does not mean that no effective offset actions can exist. Perhaps advocacy charities are ineffective, but others arent: If every meat eater in the world gave pennies every day to effective animal charities, they could accomplish much over time: the invention of cultured meat or other inventions that reduce animal suffering, give good vegetarian food to the global poor, and set up effective systems of monitoring and incentivizing improvements in animal treatment in the industries.

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