I may be wrong, but I think the following is a mainstream position in rationalist circles: even people who care about animal welfare don't have particularly strong moral reasons to personally switch to a vegan diet. 

I haven't seen a fully fleshed-out defence of this position. I can think of a few possible arguments, but none seem convincing:

  • Any single consumption decision probably won't make any difference
    • That is true, but my model of how this works is that, very roughly speaking, each decision to abstain from consuming x grams of [animal product] has a 1/n chance of causing some demand threshold to be crossed, such that x*n fewer grams of that product are produced in the next cycle. The upshot is that, in expectation, your vegan diet reduces the number of animals put through the agricultural process (or, in the case of e.g. wild-caught fish, the number being caught by. humans) by roughly as much as you would think if you simply added up your counterfactual consumption and divided it by the number of animals required to produce it.
  • The only way to get rid of harmful animal agriculture is through mass persuasion and/or coercion and/or technological progress, not individual (non-)consumption
    • Yes, but so what? This is clearly not an all-or-nothing cause; each instance of suffering matters, regardless of how many other instances exist. Nor are personal consumption change and social/technological change mutually exclusive or even conflicting.
  • There are higher-impact uses of your (time/energy/money/etc.)
    • Maybe -- though I suspect that the rosier estimates of e.g. the impact of donating to an advocacy organisation tend to be significant exaggerations -- but most of us do not have good reason to treat this as a zero-sum game in which each attempt to do good in the world must crowd out another. For one thing, we're nowhere near putting all available resources into our efforts to do good, so we can simply choose to expand that budget. For another, our psychology is complicated, and making a moral effort can just as easily increase our capacity to make further such efforts as deplete it. (As for money in particular: unless you're already eating unusually frugally, you can probably find a healthy vegan diet that doesn't require significant extra expenditure.)
  • [Something about indirect effects on e.g. wild-animal suffering or insects]
    • I don't dismiss these arguments on principle. But their force is attenuated by uncertainty, so they need to be very strong to overcome the more obvious direct effects.

Then there are arguments over which agricultural-animal lives are worth living. We can differ on that question for pretty deep reasons, so it's harder to usefully argue about. I certainly acknowledge that agricultural-animal lives worth living are possible, but I think they're much rarer than we would like to think.

There's also an argument that some hunted animals, for example wild-caught fish, might not be significantly worse off than those that die a natural death. I could be (and selfishly would like to be) convinced of this; I'm well aware that natural lives often suck and natural deaths usually suck. But my understanding is that the methods of catching and killing fish at scale tend to be pretty horrible even compared to a natural death. (And when I looked for more ethical sources of fish, it seemed like all anyone cared about was things like dolphin safety, not humane treatment of the fish themselves.)

(At the meta level, I also think we should try to apply extra scepticism when evaluating arguments in favour of conclusions that are very convenient to us. Even rational people are prone to rationalisation, and it's very very tempting to suspend disbelief a little bit when evaluating an argument against making a difficult change, and apply an extra-critical eye to arguments in favour of making that change. This is only relevant at the margins, where there is significant uncertainty and judgment calls have to be made, but I think that does apply here. )

So anyway, with all of that in mind, can anyone convince me that personal veganism is unnecessary, even taking for granted the following?

  • animal welfare matters a lot
  • animal agriculture is overwhelmingly net-negative for animal welfare

Arguments in the other direction (i.e. in favour of veganism) are of course welcome too.


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I've been turning this over in my head for a while now. (Currently eating mostly vegan fwiw, but I am not sure if this is the right decision.)

I think the main argument against veganism is that it actually incurs quite a large cost. Being vegan is a massive lifestyle change with ripple effects that extend into one's social life. This argument falls under your "there are higher-impact uses of your (time/energy/money/etc.)", but what you wrote doesn't capture the reasons why this is important.

most of us do not have good reason to treat this as a zero-sum game in which each attempt to do good in the world must crowd out another. For one thing, we're nowhere near putting all available resources into our efforts to do good, so we can simply choose to expand that budget.

I am reminded of Zvi's Slack post (ctrl+f "afford"). Attention is a very scarce resource. If I am spending all my attention on important things, I cannot also spend attention on creating a whole new diet, finding friends who won't mock me, learning how to cook all new things, etc. On the other hand, animal welfare offsets are probably quite cheap.

For another, our psychology is complicated, and making a moral effort can just as easily increase our capacity to make further such efforts as deplete it.

Indeed, and this is actually why I have become mostly vegan in recent months; but it is not going to be true for everyone. My current decision to eat mostly vegan except when inconvenient feels somehow indulgent.

I wrote more about how I am trying to be vegan: http://www.lincolnquirk.com/2022/02/15/vegan.html

8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:59 PM

Some thoughts as someone who has been eating plant-based for the past year and who thinks about the ethics constantly for fun:

  • I know someone on a mostly-beef diet who will probably develop health issues if they stay on a diet with plant-based food other than fruit for too long.
  • Beef seems to be less bad from an animal welfare perspective than most meats, at least in farms in Australia. I would probably still pay a premium for extra-ethical beef if I stopped eating . Dairy is probably bad everywhere except India.
  • Kangaroo meat seems like a clear-cut example of a "vegan meat" in practice. The Australian government sets quotas for culling them (they are overpopulated in deforested areas), very precise sharpshooters shoot them in the head, and some of the meat from culled kangaroos is sold. Demand for kangaroo meat has no effect on quotas. There is no counterfactual animal harm from buying kangaroo meat. Kangaroo suffering (and negative externalities in general) resulting from culling is very low at any rate, save for the occasional accidental killing of a mother kangaroo. I've had kangaroo meat maybe five or six times since going vegan, usually either to deal with the odd craving, to signal to family that I'm not a purist, or because someone had cooked it or a restaurant had it on a menu.
  • Avoiding honey/oysters seems like it has less impact than it's worth for the time I've spent pondering the subject.
  • You're right that wild-caught fish are not necessarily humanely treated. The ikejime process for killing fish is very humane compared to the cheaper and more suffocation method, but I've never seen fish advertised as ikejime (and they are probably an order of magnitude more expensive).
  • Social pressures in either direction are a thing. The time I spend with different groups of friends has changed since I went vegan, even though nobody has really objected to it. My flatmate reduced their meat intake significantly almost immediately after I went vegan, but they still eat meat when going out to restaurants with others. People seem to care about food a lot. People also seem to take cues from those around them.
  • If eating vegan had noticeably worsened my health or my concentration, I would have stopped, because I can probably do more net good in the world without those problems even if I had to eat the flesh of sentient creatures. Eating vegan and spending your time on other things are not orthogonal for everyone.
  • If you rely on evolutionary heuristics for diet you're probably not going to be vegan, especially since we know B12 is a thing that's difficult to get without animal products, and there could be other things you aren't getting. I'm not really worried about this since I don't see many short term issues for myself, the medium-term issues seem to be more reliably mitigated against now, and if anything I've heard that it helps longevity.
  • Vegans trying to gain muscle for whatever reason aren't necessarily going to have a hard time as long as they remember to eat protein at all. Vegans trying to cut (lose fat without losing too much muscle) are probably going to not have quite the same success if they were an omnivore or otherwise have a very boring time with the food they eat (unless they eat kangaroo).
  • I seem to need to eat more to actually have enough energy if I'm not eating eggs/meat. It's more expensive if you don't like cooking, but the extra fibre is usually a good thing.

I'd say that not eating animal products seems like the correct choice if you can pull it off without too much trouble. It probably makes more and more sense the older you get. If you can afford to change your diet but not exclude animal products entirely, consider eating kangaroo if your country doesn't ban its import. Consider eating kangaroo anyway.

It's usually your bullet point 3 ("There are higher-impact uses of your (time/energy/money/etc.") and I think people would argue that you're falling prey to a typical mind fallacy, that you think that what appears easy/effortless to you is that way for everyone. 

And also estimates that compared to targeted donations or direct work, personal consumption makes a very small difference. (It's true that these tend to be underestimates because by being a friendly and rational-sounding vegan, you can inspire others to follow your choices.)

[ note: this is outsider thoughts - I am neither EA nor Vegetarian (nor "rationalist", in the community/identity sense). ]

First,  are you asking about vegan or just vegetarian (or even semi-vegetarian)?  The arguments are different, and especially the "better topics to spend energy on" is scalable in terms of how much thought and effort it actually takes.

Second, I think you missed an important consideration: influence and normalization.  Even if your contribution is small, and even if (perhaps especially if) you don't proselytize or demand anything from others, your demonstration that this is a valid and fulfilling way to live makes it much more likely that others will choose it as well.

Additional/complementary argument in favour (and against the “any difference you make is marginal” argument): one’s personal example of viable veganism increases the chances of others becoming vegan (or partially so, which is still a benefit). Under plausible assumptions this effect could be (potentially much) larger the the direct effect of personal consumption decisions.

Could you clarify if you mean claim 3 ("There are higher-impact uses of your (time/energy/money/etc.)") is:

  • never true
  • technically true occasionally but so rare it's not worth considering
  • true n% percent of the time 

I expected the subbullet to be a refutation of the claim, but right now I think even if you agree with all the clauses it demonstrates only that the claim can be made in error (which I agree with). It doesn't make the case that it's impossible for the claim to hold for a given individual, or even that it's necessarily rare for it to do so. 

[edit: reading this back, it's less clear and more tangential than I'd intended. To be more direct: I think claim 3 is sometimes true, but usually either partially or entirely beside the point. 'There are higher-impact uses of resource X available to you than action Y' is only a strong argument against taking action Y if a) the alternative you will actually choose is higher impact than Y, and b) you have insufficient X to do the higher-impact things and Y. I think both a and b are often false in this context, and at least one of them is usually false.

original reply is below.]

I think it's sometimes true, but the implied zero-sum framing of the relevant resources is often false, misleading, or irrelevant, because:

  • almost all of us have plenty of room to increase our 'moral budget' by shifting some resources away from self-interest and toward doing good by others. Pointing out that X isn't the best possible use of my resources is unhelpful if the alternative I'm actually going to take is even further from optimal.
  • not only are ~none of us optimally altruistic, many of us aren't doing a particularly good job of optimising for some combination of self-interest and altruism, or even for pure self-interest. So there aren't only tradeoffs; efficiency gains are also possible.
  • I don't think our mental resource pool is fixed. Opportunity costs are real, but some investments create net gains. Likewise, sometimes doing a hard thing that we believe is right can increase our capacity to do other good things, without requiring a counterbalancing sacrifice of personal well-being or productivity.

I also think the veganism question is exactly the sort of dilemma that makes self-delusion and rationalisation extremely tempting. If I can convince myself that e.g. my work is so important that I morally ought to do (almost) whatever is necessary to optimise my personal productivity, then I can escape from having to experience any internal conflict or guilt over taking 'selfish' actions.

almost all of us have plenty of room to increase our 'moral budget' by shifting some resources away from self-interest and toward doing good by others.

Except people who are obsessed with having the most impact they can, which describes a lot of people in effective altruism.

I don't understand the relevance of your second bullet point.

I agree with the third bullet point, but this only works in particular situations where you get synergies. (E.g., a lot of people who go vegan also use the opportunity to become healthier, and that can work well. However, if you're already a health nut before veganism, you'd find that veganism limits your options and it would get harder to follow the best health advice.) 

If I can convince myself that e.g. my work is so important that I morally ought to do (almost) whatever is necessary to optimise my personal productivity, then I can escape from having to experience any internal conflict or guilt over taking 'selfish' actions.

This sort of argument can be levelled against anything related to doing slightly weird things due to opportunity costs. It isn't always right.

I also feel like the argument goes both ways. If you can convince yourself that you're really moral every time you eat food without animal products, maybe you become more complacent in other ways or rationalize that people who optimize for doing good via workaholicism and cutting down on all non-essential areas of life must all be deluding themselves.

I should add that, of the two points I asked you to take for granted when answering (animal welfare matters a lot; and animal agriculture is overwhelmingly net-negative for animal welfare), only the first is completely pointless to discuss, because it's a question of ground-level values. 

The effect of animal agriculture on animal welfare is partly an empirical question, so if you have any surprising facts to offer, I'd like to hear them. What I think would be a waste of time is arguing over how bad some type of life is (e.g. being a pig in an intensive farm) where we both agree on the observable facts.

I can't imagine being convinced that animal agriculture, taken as a whole, is not overwhelmingly negative for animal welfare, but I can imagine being convinced that there are sufficiently numerous and discoverable exceptions that it is okay/good to eat certain kinds of animal product from certain sources. 

In fact, I already know there are some small-scale dairy farms that seem genuinely committed to giving their cows a decent life, and I expect that some of them do a pretty good job of if. Specific recommendations, or arguments that humane animal agriculture (or humane commercial hunting of wild animals) is more common than I think, are welcome.

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