Vegan advocates frequently argue that compromise positions like heavily reduced but nonzero meat consumption, humane certifications, or choosing meat with a lower suffering profile are not acceptable. The usual reason given is that the compromises aren't emotionally sustainable, and people inevitably slide back into full blown omnivorism. I (Elizabeth) never found this satisfying, emotionally or logically, and follow up discussions never went anywhere useful. Recently* Tristan gave an answer I did find satisfying, and made me suspect a follow-up discussion would be highly educational. 

This is that follow up discussion, and it was indeed very educational. We dove deep into what taking reverence for life as your central value might mean, and how failing to center on this might be risky or invite some degree of sterility.  I (Tristan) felt able to express some views I'm not always able to convey, and deeply appreciated the continued curiosity and help forgining those views that occured throughout. And though we might still hold quite differing views at the end of the day, this feels like a further step taken in epistemic good will that will hopefully help foster more conversations like it in the future.  


*Well, it was recent when we started this. Progress has been fairly slow, which is one reason we're publishing now rather than waiting for a better stopping point. 

Reverence for Life



In the original comment  you wrote:

Yeah sure. I would need a full post to explain myself, but basically I think that what seems to be really important when going vegan is standing in a certain sort of loving relationship to animals, one that isn't grounded in utility but instead a strong (but basic) appreciation and valuing of the other. But let me step back for a minute.

I guess the first time I thought about this was with my university EA group. We had a couple of hardcore utilitarians, and one of them brought up an interesting idea one night. He was a vegan, but he'd been offered some mac and cheese, and in similar thinking to above (that dairy generally involves less suffering than eggs or chicken for ex) he wondered if it might actually be better to take the mac and donate the money he would have spent to an animal welfare org. And when he roughed up the math, sure enough, taking the mac and donating was somewhat significantly the better option.  

But he didn't do it, nor do I think he changed how he acted in the future. Why? I think it's really hard to draw a line in the sand that isn't veganism that stays stable over time. For those who've reverted, I've seen time and again a slow path back, one where it starts with the less bad items, cheese is quite frequent, and then naturally over time one thing after another is added to the point that most wind up in some sort of reducetarian state where they're maybe 80% back to normal (I also want to note here, I'm so glad for any change, and I cast no stones at anyone trying their best to change). And I guess maybe at some point it stops being a moral thing, or becomes some really watered down moral thing like how much people consider the environment when booking a plane ticket. 

I don't know if this helps make it clear, but it's like how most people feel about harm to younger kids. When it comes to just about any serious harm to younger kids, people are generally against it, like super against it, a feeling of deep caring that to me seems to be one of the strongest sentiments shared by humans universally. People will give you some reasons for this i.e. "they are helpless and we are in a position of responsibility to help them" but really it seems to ground pretty quickly in a sentiment of "it's just bad". 

To have this sort of love, this commitment to preventing suffering, with animals to me means pretty much just drawing the line at sentient beings and trying to cultivate a basic sense that they matter and that "it's just bad" to eat them. Sure, I'm not sure what to do about insects, and wild animal welfare is tricky, so it's not nearly as easy as I'm making it seem. And it's not that I don't want to have any idea of some of the numbers and research behind it all, I know I need to stay up to date on debates on sentience, and I know that I reference relative measures of harm often when I'm trying to guide non-veg people away from the worst harms. But what I'd love to see one day is a posturing towards eating animals like our posturing towards child abuse, a very basic, loving expression that in some sense refuses the debate on what's better or worse and just casts it all out as beyond the pale. 

And to try to return to earlier, I guess I see taking this sort of position as likely to extend people's time spent doing veg-related diets, and I think it's just a lot trickier to have this sort of relationship when you are doing some sort of utilitarian calculus of what is and isn't above the bar for you (again, much love to these people, something is always so much better than nothing). This is largely just a theory, I don't have much to back it up, and it would seem to explain some cases of reversion I've seen but certainly not all, and I also feel like this is a bit sloppy because I'd really need a post to get at this hard to describe feeling I have. But hopefully this helps explain the viewpoint a bit better, happy to answer any aquestions :)

I can see a lot of potential follow-ups to this, but let me pick one to avoid being overwhelmed by choices: How do you trade off a philosophy of reverence for life/anti-suffering, versus practical consequences?

E.g. I've seen some EA vegans push hard against reducitarianism. I expect that push to be an intensifier in both directions- some recipients develop more reverence for life and anti-suffering, others less than they otherwise would have, because it makes the middle ground unsustainable.

It sounds like you are willing to let some animals suffer and die in the short term, in order to support a long term life/anti-suffering culture. I'm guessing there's a point at which you stop being willing to make that trade. Where is that line?


Tristan Williams

I'll take the first question to be something that's guiding our conversation here, and focus on the below in hopes we work towards an answer there. 

But yeah it's a really hard line for me to draw, but I guess where my mind first goes is a specific example. I would say the majority of other vegans I've met out in the world have generally found themselves there first for either the environment or health reasons, with the welfare of the animals obviously there, but more on the backburner. And specifically with the environmentalists (for no particular reason) I've always had a lot of trouble figuring out what exactly I should say. My default is to not throw stones, so I normally go about the conversation focusing on other things, on stuff in common like good recipes or something like that. But in the back of my mind I'm like "what would you do if for all their suffering the world was fine?" 

And like the way I feel about this sentiment is that I may even need to take it out if we published, because I like really think that this is maybe just something I'm meant to keep to myself and muse on because I'm unsure what effect it might have. But I guess yeah more than anything else I think people in this position may not see the world in the same way that I do, may not derive that same sanctity of life that I do. And I worry a lot that this isn't really moral circle expansion, that its moral expansion by accident or something like that. 

And so rounding back to your question, one thing that would make me think about how I was moving through vegan spaces a lot differently would be knowing that a climate stable future wasn't very far away. I'd be quite scared that at that point, we'd see the ramifications of accepting the same conclusion from radically different bases, and that a significant portion of current vegans might slowly fade back into the regular mix. And to some degree I can write this off as a far fetched though experiment that is unlikely to obtain, but it doesn't answer to another sentiment I have which is that having an expanded sense of sanctity of life is probably a good making feature across a number of areas.

Here I get really out in the weeds, because this goes beyond anything I've really formulated before. But I guess if I had to try to take what feels more like a sentiment and give it justification, I see the valuation of life as a sort of fundamental building block for better being able to make peaceable relations, something which I just broadly think is good for the world. Maybe another way to put it is that I think it's important to view life outside from yourself as truly sacred, and I think and undercurrent of a lot of climate activism is a positioning of concern for self over concern for others. Greta Thunberg says she speaks for a generation, but I've heard her use "my" one to many times to be convinced that a large part of why she does what she does is because this threatens her. 

But at the same time, I don't know Greta Thunberg, and even the vegans I do know who do so for environmental reasons first normally list morality second or third. I get the sense that this appreciation that I have would be front and center if they felt it too, but maybe that's just how it works for me, maybe others really can value the lives of animals as sacred while being vegan mostly for the environment. 

I don't know, I also feel like maybe I haven't answered your question properly either, but I think this is relevant and would love to hear your reactions to such a sentiment because I think that is part of helping me develop that answer for myself. 


It sounds like veganism without reverence-for-life/anti-suffering feels kind of empty for you? Is that right?

And on the flip side, how else does/should reverence-for-life affect your life? How do you feel about abortion? The death penalty? FDA obstructionism?

Maybe FDA obstructionism is the best example, because I could easily imagine a poetic FDA spokesperson defending risk aversion and the invisible graveyard as reverence for life, but what I see is unnecessary death and suffering, and violation of individual autonomy. 

Tristan Williams

I think a better word for this might be misguided. Those in this camp are making big changes in their lives, changes that are often hard and not easy to make. They care deeply about something too, their hearts are "full", let us say, with concern for the wellbeing of the environment. But at the end of the day, when this perspective takes priority, reduction in the suffering of animals becomes instrumental. Eggs maybe aren't as big a deal because they don't cause as much of an impact on the climate, even though egg-laying chickens may suffer the most. The equivalent would be something like having some horrific, child slave labor going on at a coal factory and saying "I refuse to buy from them because of what it does to the climate". That's great, and we have the same action to take in the world, but would you shut down the same plant if it were making solar panels instead? 

On the flip side, I find that I don't have my worldview quite worked out when it comes to other things, though I think about them a lot. Veganism feels easy in this regard, because I can work out the sort of balance of suffering for these practices and determine that they seem obviously over the line, but this becomes much harder when you have to start weighing different parties' wellbeing against one another. I don't know that I have anything illustrative to say about the FDA (but maybe if you want to explain more about why you think its the best example, we could return to it). Instead, I think it might be better to walk through the death penalty as an example. 

I used to be fairly pro-death penalty. I think I had this moral revulsion to the more heinous of crimes that made me feel like once you cross a certain line, you're no longer participating in this thing called humanity we're trying to build. It was this sense of revulsion that obviously built up laws surrounding the penalty, but having the laws in place also allowed me to appeal to justice, to the idea that we were a society that gave just punishment for crimes, and that for some that meant the needle. The first slight change of heart for me was when I stumbled into how poorly we current do executions. Lethal injection is a horrible way of going about it, and these people often suffer on their day of dying, and despite what I may think about them, I think that is terrible on our part. The next challenge came from a friend whose dad was a death row attorney. She believed in a very strong determinism, which I do not, but at the end of the day I didn't find her way of seeing the world as crazy misguided or anything like that, and it had radically different implications for this group of people. For her, because their deeds were set out in circumstances beyond their control, it was incredibly ill-conceived to punish them for this, essentially arguing we should view all those who commit a crime now like we do the mentally ill when they commit a crime: culpable in some sense, but largely not responsible. And at the time, this also bootstrapped onto my building awareness of how strong a role environmental factors can play in our lives, something that made me realize my enthusiasm here was pegged to a hardcore free will version of seeing the world that I likely no longer endorsed. The last thing that has changed how I think about it significantly is engaging with another friend who was super anti-death penalty because we've likely executed the wrong people in at least a couple of cases. I don't know what his line is, but it's quite low for false positives in our judicial system, and he thinks that execution should require a level of evidence beyond reproach, some sort of literal red-handed certainty, before we can even consider following through. 

What's the upshot to all this? Hopefully the above illustrates something about my world view, namely that I recognize that there are a plurality of viewpoints out there, and that they often help me change how I see the world. My principle of reverence for life flows through here as a sort of entry fee to me updating. Through my dialogue with each friend, it was clear that they cared deeply about the wellbeing of others, just different people than I did, and this meant that they were playing the sort of game that might change the subject for me. Contrast that with others who have tried to argue against the death penalty for its costliness, and I meekly agree but without this sort of argument moving me at a deeper level. 

The Bar for A Worthwhile Life


Thank was helpful, thank you, I really appreciate how you dig into the edge cases.

But I feel like I'd struggle to guess your position on any individual issue. I think I could create a reverence-for-life motivated reason for every side of every issue. If the death penalty has arguments on both sides (but you're killing people!/but they killed people!), how could anything else hope to not?

And sometimes I think the reference-for-life just gets the wrong answer. Warning: very stupid analogy.

The Tiger King reality show follows two owners of zoos/sanctuaries for big cats. One of them, Carol Baskin, clearly has much more reverence for the animals. She talks about them like they're sacred, and tries to minimize their interactions with human. She doesn't breed them because she believes animals belong in the wild, and is only trying to provide a resting place for animals that can't return to the wild. She's also vegan*. 

The other owner, Joe Exotic, does not revere anything. He breeds excess cubs that he takes away from their mother seconds after birth so they can be handed around in meet and greets. This leads to way more adults than he wants to support, and there's good reason to believe he kills the excess. 

So if we were to estimate reverence for life, Baskins obviously has way more. But (letting the wild tiger population rounds to zero) if we put Carol Baskins in charge of domestic tiger management, we are thirty years away from having no tigers. If Joe Exotic were in charge we would have an abundance of tigers. Most of them would have shitty lives, but they would exist, and there would be hope for future tigers existing and having good lives. Joe Exotic is running a tiger mill; Carol Baskins is running a nursing home. 

I think an individual's life can be bad enough to not be worth living. I think a species total trajectory can be bad enough to not be worth continuing as a species. But I think cutting off the future of an individual or species for whom things could get better, even if it's very far away and far in the future, is profoundly nihilistic. Reverence is what we feel for things that are dead or very far away. Reverence is sterile. 

But I picked the word reverence, not you, so I'm wondering how this sits with you. 




*I vaguely remember her saying this on the show, but a quick search found only a mention of her being vegan after the show came out. The reporting seems pretty lazy so I don't think they nailed down the start date. 

Tristan Williams

Hmm, I get the original point that you can see it justifying both sides, but I think your example actually shows how it can be easy to choose a side sometimes. 

I managed to miss the whole Tiger King phase somehow (well, I certainly heard about it, but I never watched it, that is) but from what I understand Carol has a reverence for life specifically geared towards the animals, where Joe Exotic has none. You bring in at the end this idea that, maybe, from a reverence for life perspective, Joe could come out on top as he's fostering generations to come, whereas Carol is closing domesticated tigers off to that potential (loved the mill vs nursing home distinction). But just because Joe is creating more lives doesn't mean he's behaving with an appropriate reverence for life. 

Take x farmer that produces chickens for Perdue. They're Joe Exotic to the extreme, cranking out chickens faster than you can count them. I won't stipulate whether the cause of doing so is active or ignorant, but I'd be fairly comfortable with saying this farmer has a deficient reverence for life compared to the norm. I, like you, think that lives can be net negative, and because of this, I'd take x famer's crazy ex wife who wants to turn the operation into a nursing home any day over the farmer. I don't have a similar insight into how bad the life of a domesticated tiger is (I know that generally an important point in considering welfare is an animals ability to express itself as usual, so I imagine domesticated tigers will likely always come up short here) but if the life of the tiger were anything similar to the average broiler chicken, grab the bridge ladies because we're turning this bitch into a nursing home. 

And I don't think this is a bad analogy. Though every case certainly won't be as easy to adjudicate, this illustrates how, as far as the reverence for life principle goes as I practice it, it isn't just as simple as increasing life years, or number of lives, or anything like that. 

But you make a very interesting point in reverence being sterile, and I want to think through that for a minute. Recently, I was arguing with a friend about what exactly the conditions should be for bringing a kid into the world. This is a whole subtopic to dig into, but my position here maybe stems largely from my reverence for life, where I feel like I have some pretty stringent conditions I would want to meet before I had a kid. This is things like having dated the person I'm to have kids with for over five years, having relative financial stability projected into the next decade, stuff like that. She was the total opposite, where she saw her tough situation growing up (parents divorced and in different states, no single parent doing a basically good job) as a sort of baseline, anything above which she was happy to raise a kid. So even if there wasn't a stable father to be a part of the kid's life, she'd still have it, because she thinks she can do a better job as a single parent than what she had growing up, and she turned out alright after all. This is all a longwinded background story to me saying this: I came away from our discussion wondering if there would be a chance I never had kids.

I mean, I've had relationships, really deep and fulfilling relationships, and I'm even in one now, but who's to say that will project into the future? I don't think I require perfection for raising a kid, but exactly how far off is my view from it? In my acute awareness of the suffering of others, and the suffering one can go through when they're young, I've built this strong aversion to raising them in poor circumstances, but have I traded something potentially alright for nothing at all? 

I don't know. What I do know is this: I really, really want to have kids one day. I want to bring life into this world (or nurture it through with adoption) and I would consider my life deficient at the end if I never got around to that. I don't want to be sterile, and I plan to fight for the circumstances that making raising kids possible for me, but I can only control so much, and fate might have it that those are not my cards to be dealt, so I can't be sure where I'll end up.

But here at the end I also want to abstract out from me a bit. Parents generally have a deep reverence for life (at least their own kid's) and are the exact sort of people that are carrying on humanity into the future. This love of life, this desire to create something beyond themselves, seems to me one of the best expressions of this principle, and thus is quite fertile with potential. And though I want to set stringent standards for myself, I don't turn those same standards into weapons of judgment against other parents. Yeah, maybe you should have waited five years, but she's nearing 35 and you two really seem to love each other, so I get it. Yeah, maybe you should have bought plan B, but you don't want to snuff out that potential that you know is growing inside of you now, that's part of you, I get it. I have some red lines, sure. Beat your kid after rushing into something and having had a history of aggression and I'll fully admit I don't get it, and more than that, I seethe at it. But generally speaking, I think parents are those most potently practicing the idea of life as sacred, something deeply intertwined with helping to ensure the torch is passed on when their days come to an end. 


TBC I agree 100% that Joe Exotic has minimal reverence for life. I think the part where he's nonetheless a better choice than the highly reverential Carol Baskins if you want tigers in 50 years points to some of the limits and dangers of reverence. The issues you talk about around kids feel exactly analogous to me, so I think we're on the same page.

You use the words reverence for life and love of life kind of interchangeably, but in my mind they're pretty different. Love of life means creating more of it even if in very difficult circumstances (including net negative ones). Reverence means only creating under perfect circumstances (and ignoring many that are strongly net positive). Obviously you want some of both feelings, and I'm glad society has become more reverential towards children over time, but it's possible to overshoot. 

[and too much risk aversion seems bad for kids after birth as well, although "too much" is doing a lot of work here]

So how do you balance reverence and love? Creation and standards? My sense is for many vegans, suffering weighs much more heavily than joy or utils, such that even a cow with a delightful cow life and a painless death is unacceptable (assuming arguendo the scenario is attainable). I'm tentatively comfortable with that trade, including being of the receiving end of it. If my choices were "non-existence" or "raised in beautiful nature preserve and painlessly killed by aliens at 35", I'd take the nature preserve (again, assuming a lot about the quality of the nature preserve). 

The highly reverential attitude feels very literally hopeless to me. You're cutting off any chance that things could get better. 


Tristan Williams

Huh, hate to be terminological, but I wonder if we don't maybe need other terms here. Above I used them fairly interchangeably, which I could endorse, but if I were trying to find difference between them, I'd likely label love of life as a sort of parent to reverence for life. Love of life is the sort of thing, if we operationalized, that I'd expect both those for and against the death penalty to score high on. I also think reverence for life is a weaker principle than you state, something more like only creating life above a certain bar, and making sure you do what you can to keep their life about that bar. But yeah, this means I need to propose a new term for other thing you're talking about here, and I don't have anything good right now (so if you come up with something better I can just replace references) but tentatively let's call it a principle of continuation of life. 

Let me do the (apparently stereotypical for me in this thread lol) thing of giving an example to illustrate how I see the balance of continuation and reverence. When I first started to change my diet, I was most appalled at factory farming, and remember that first call with my parents afterwards, trying to soothe their worries by saying "no, no, this doesn't apply to our animals, I'll keep chowing down on Williams family steaks don't you worry. I'll spare you the details, but long story short I came into the thinking of the above slowly and found myself eventually unable to eat even our products, because now it wasn't a steak on my plate, it was a piece of a cow, maybe even a cow like the one I bottlefed for a year growing up and then sold for slaughter, a good cow named Max.  

So I changed, and for awhile ate nothing from the farm. But then, after conversations with my parents challenging my views, I realized I didn't have much to say on what we were doing with our chickens that I thought was bad. They had:

  • Plenty of room to free range
  • Comfortable nesting boxes with hay stuffed in them
  • Daily checks on their food and water, with precautions in place to make sure they were okay in times of extreme temperatures (i.e. heated waterers for the winter) 
  • A place to roost for the night

So not only were they seemingly well taken care of, I had reason to believe they might actually be doing even better than out in the wild, because they had safe indoor spaces which afforded a better chance at avoiding predators. AFAICT, the only significant negative for them is being denied the chance for reproduction, because we don't put any roosters in as we collect for eggs (because it sure would disappoint Mrs. Linda if she cracked a chicken fetus into her pan). But I weighed everything up and asked myself something similar to your question: what's worse, no life at all or this life, and after really thinking about it, I decided I would choose this life, if I had the option. So I gave my parents their exception: I'd eat the farm eggs, but nothing else (so I'm really not even a true blood vegan!)

But the reason I was able to do this, the reason I was able to come to this decision, was the fact that I was 

  1. Able to learn a bit about chickens and get some rough sense of what a good life for them looked like
  2. Able to really inspect the farm, not only once but across time, to know how they were treated and be able to more confidently say they aren't suffering. 

Most people don't have both 1 & 2, and 2 is especially rare and hard to get access to normally. If you're armed with 1 you can do things like ask people to assess 2, but I've tried this out at a farmer's market and the answers range from unhelpful to funny (and still unhelpful) i.e. (real response) "I don't know my kids give them hugs so I figure they are pretty happy". And generally, there are significant problems with each:

There will always be questions of whether 1 is sufficient. For example, we renovated a greenhouse of ours to expand our flock at one point, and all went well for a bit, but eventually we started noticing that the greenhouse chickens were a lot more aggressive than the others, enforcing the pecking order and often leading to significant feather loss for the others. For the longest time we couldn't figure out why, until one day we realized that maybe the difference in temperature (they had access to the outside, and a large fan, so it wasn't as hot as you might expect but still was consistently hotter than the other place) might be the cause of it. And sure enough, when they were moved out things got better. And this is the sort of thing that scares me because I wouldn't have thought of this, I wouldn't have noticed that the issue was the caretaking and not just the animals and how they behave. So I'm honestly not sure that the knowledge I have access to is sufficient to ensure they have a good life. Something that I think could really help this is having succinct guides describing normal behavior and needs for animals (maybe 5 pages) from people that can be trusted, that way one could be more sure when an animal's life is above the rough bar set out by what their life looks like when it goes well in a natural environment.

Even if we don't need full access to 2, we could proceed with less if we had trust between us and the famers, but I think that trust has been broken, that what everyone thinks is okay is often not okay, and there are few other people in the world you feel like you can trust for a sober, clear eyed judgement on the matter. To be frank, I have about 0% faith in any of the claims on animal products in the store, and I'd likely trust just about anyone over the companies themselves. And what's worse is you can't even trust your teammates sometimes. I have a friend from India who's vegetarian via Hinduism, and even though he knew exactly what veganism meant, he would often give the all clear for things that weren't fully vegan, and I didn't always catch it in the moment. 

So given this, I generally feel I must assume the worse until proven otherwise, assume that the animal is being mistreated and prove away from this, because I think that's the track record. So yeah, I think it's the state of affairs that leads to a disproportionate focus on suffering above, and that if the environment were different there would be a lot more to be said for how veg people see the principle of continuation of life. But I should also note that this group isn't a monolith, and that there are groups out there who seem to endorse something roughly like what you say e.g. Peta and how it seems to justify the idea that one should never have pets, though I also can never really nail down what Peta thinks and why.

Taking this all back out to the general level, what I'm saying is I think continuation of life certainly has a place for me, and I don't think practicing a reverence for life cuts you off from this. I agree that it can be taken too far, and think that anyone with a view like "no animal should be raised by humans because it's inherently bad" has likely crossed the line. But the sort of balance I'm proposing, and trying to practice in my life, is far from cutting off the chance for things to get better. I want people to have pets and kids, just in a way that really tries to make sure life has a reasonable chance of going well for them, something which means slowing things down a lot and talking a lot more together about what "a reasonable chance of going well" is.


Tristan Williams

I'm still good to follow this line of inquiry through until you feel satisfied you understand the view, but because trust came up here, and specifically a lack of trust in another to tell the truth. I'm tempted to ask you how you behave when there are important things at stake and the area is filled with falsehoods.

The Sterility of Negativity in Vegan Advocacy


On a practical level I agree that humane farms are, at a minimum, extremely hard to do at scale. I used to be more hopeful about them, but then @Slapstick pointed out that it's unrealistic to expect mass farming to be substantially more humane than prisons or nursing homes, and those are pretty bad. I'm still pondering this and am not ready say it's hopeless, but "sadists exist and will look for roles that give them power without consequences" is a good point.

I want to answer your question on how to engage in epistemic war zones, and I suspect there isn't that much more to say on the current thread, but I'd like to try one more volley.

I'm going to make a bold statement and then some caveats.

My sense is that the anti-animal-suffering movement has a strain of ?sterility? running through it that feels anti-life to me. 


  1. notallantisufferingadvocates
  2. even if it was all anti-suffering advocates, it wouldn't automatically make them wrong. I bet the first people to object to slavery had a disproportionate number of scrupulosity issues, and interacting with a world that denied that evil must have made things worse. 


A few examples of what I mean:

  1. some amount of vegans have an innate propensity for an eating disorder, and use veganism and animal suffering as cover. This isn't unique to veganism, I think some combo of purity and control issues is upstream of a lot of extreme diets, veganism probably has a lower rate of hidden orthorexia than things like raw carnivore or anti-toxin diets. But I still think it's common enough to seriously alter the culture. 
  2. I really liked this post announcing a project to expand the range of tofu available in the west. I liked it in part because it was focused on creation rather than sacrifice, and that it marketed itself as such. I thought it was going to market itself as an aspirational product that omnivore foodies would enjoy on its own terms, not a sad replacement for better but unethical food. 

    Then the book comes out and it's called "Broken Cuisine", with the blurb "Our meat-based diets are leading to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway climate change, and widespread animal cruelty. Yet, our plant-based alternatives aren't appealing enough. This is our Broken Cuisine. I believe we must fix it."

    I find this kind of heartbreaking, because it seems like this guy got it enough to realize that he'd accomplish more with a positive vision than a negative one, and then failed to implement it. I don't want to read to much into this, I believe this is just one dude fairly early in his career who maybe never had the goals I thought he did. But my uncharitable story is "vegan advocates can't recognize when they come across as despairing even when they're aiming for hope and pleasure, because they're so dissociated". 

    [but #notallvegans, and even if it was that doesn't automatically make them wrong]
  3. At least within EA, there's substantial overlap between negative utilitarians and veganism. 
  4. I dunno man, vibes. The animal EAs I talk to seem much more depressed on average than the global poverty EAs. Maybe that's because animal suffering is in a worse state, but it seems like animal welfare has gained a lot of traction in just the last 5 or 10 years.

    [the x-risk EAs have emotional issues that are different but fairly analogous to animal EAs, and how to deal with that is a whole other discussion]


I'm sure there are parts of veganism with more joy and hope, and I would love to see those parts get better representation. 




Tristan Williams

Volley as you will my friend :) Let's bookmark epistemic warzones and continue on. 

As a quick response to the first bit, I think mass humane farming might be a contradiction in terms, kind of similar to how Michael Pollan thinks about mass organic farming. Sadism, sure, but also what ever line I'd like to draw will likely include a personal relationship with the animal at a minimum for ensuring quality sufficient care, something that's hard to do with a herd of 30, let alone 300 or more. 

On the bold statement: I think it was good that you said this because I was picking up some sort of strand that you were keenly interested in but wasn't quite able to put it together, and I think this will help us get to the ~meat~ of the issue.

My first impression was "this is interesting, but I think I disagree" but after taking some time to think about it one part came to have particular resonance: the lack of positivity. In Dominion, one of the better films of factory farming, they show some pretty brutal stuff (the male chicks thrown into the grinder level brutal) and at one point they show some footage of a newborn goat stranded and forgotten. They end the film by going back to the farm, finding that goat, and rescuing him, and I thought that was a wonderfully beautiful way to end it. I take the thrust of some of what you said to be that we need more of that. 

And when I reflect I agree. So much of the emotive vegan stuff I've run into is negative, focuses on the suffering. Part of me wants to say that it's because people straight up don't think the suffering exists, which makes it relevantly different from the global welfare folks. Like, sure, some people might bicker about aid, but nearly everyone will agree at the end of the day that children starving is bad. And sure, one path here is positivity, highlighting the animals ability to create beauty in the world. But the problem is this path dead ends when people think those animals currently being slaughtered are living descent lives. 

...yeah and they saved this goat who was entirely alone without it's mother at the end of the film and it was so happy to be taken in and that seemed really cool.

That's great! I'm glad everything worked out for him. 

Soooooo after thinking about that does it really feel just as easy to eat that burger?

Yeah, I mean, sure, bad things may happen sometimes, but that's part of life, and I think the animals I eat generally had good lives. I buy cage free eggs, so they're good.

This isn't everyone I run into, but a lot of people still have the impression that it's not that bad to be a factory farmed cow/chicken/pig and generally it feels like the only hope in convincing them to change is highlighting just how bad things are for the animals. 

But even with that being said, yeah, I sure do wish there was more positivity. I think some of this has come around plant based meats, people generally getting excited about the quality increases there, but yeah I'd love to see more people talking about "how good it is to be vegan" rather than the usual "it's not that bad". 

And fwiw on (2), I think tofu guy is actually still on brand with what you care about and just made a fairly big mistake with choosing a name and branding for the book. I haven't read most of it, but if you read his contribution to Asterisk (which I think mirrored the thrust of the book) it's clear that he's pretty keen on talking about the beauty.

Also, not much to say, but I wanted to mention I appreciate you mentioning (4). Rationalism can sometimes be taken to suppress anything you can't quite articulate (vibes are a good example) and I'm not a fan of that. 

So yeah, I think I disagree with the sterility/anti-life claim, but I think the lack of joy is spot on. I wonder, what examples of joy are there that have really spoken to you in the realm of addressing a pressing issue?


what examples of joy are there that have really spoken to you in the realm of addressing a pressing issue?


The first thing that came to mind when you asked that was this song from the movie Smallfoot. Context: these two are part of a small group of yeti outcasts that think humans are real, which conflicts with important tribal lore.

More context: this is one of those songs I only liked after I started antidepressants. One reason I give some weight to my vibe-read is that I've watched myself react very differently to the same facts when I was depressed and not depressed. I wasn't wrong about the facts while depressed, and I was right to be worried about the facts, and there's no logical argument that shows depressed me was overreacting... but at the end of the day, undepressed me was less emotionally affected by those facts, and this was good for me. not just in a "being undepressed is nicer" way; the depression was interfering with useful action. Many animal suffering advocates look to me like someone who has a very good point and is nonetheless having an unhelpful emotional reaction to it, or felt bad first and went looking for a reason to attach to that feeling. 

Of course 

 the ending of smallfoot is unrealistically positive, in the real world there would, at best, have been a lot of dead yetis before the happy outcome

@Raemon's god of humanity and god of utility. A lot Ray's stuff has a vibe of fundamental love of humanity.  

A lot of the stuff coming out of Manifold has a can-do vibe. I'm worried they take it too far but the ecosystem as a whole desperately needs more of it so I can't complain too much. 

Mobile money in Africa as a tool against poverty (disclosure: I previously worked for one such company and still have some stock, but the causality goes "belief in power of mobile money" -> employment).

I think Slime Mold Time Mold is probably mostly wrong, but love that they are exploring, and the joy they bring to it, and expect that to get them to the correct answer faster. 

In the realm of "not joy, but deeply alive": yesterday I saw a large mouse or small rat trapped in a glue trap. I would have been okay with a dead rodent in a spring trap or a live one in a humane trap, but the combination of the terrified noises and the knowledge of how bad glue traps are broke my heart* (this wasn't my house, I'm trying to convert the owner to another trap type). That moment felt like I was connecting with the animal's fear and desire to be safe rather than dissociation or a freeze response, which is both what I hear in descriptions of factory farming and the response it engenders in me.** 



*My reaction may have been intensified because my own pet was having health issues I'd just taken them to the vet for (tests have since revealed they're probably fine)


** Owner released the rodent in a park, intact although possibly sticky. My understanding is this is maybe just a slower death, since presumably the park is at carrying capacity and the owner will continue to fight rats' attempts to increase carrying capacity by eating their food. But at least it's not a glue trap. 

Tristan Williams

I'm struggling to find a common thread that ties these examples and experiences together, and have had a hard time weaving a response, so perhaps this is a good time to move on to your side of things, to truth and, perhaps first, epistemic warzones. 



how you behave when there are important things at stake and the area is filled with falsehoods

I think as written this is too easy: "you correct them". I'm going to focus on the harder case of "what do you do in epistemic war zones, where there are exactly allowed two sides and they are heavily entrenched, and people are literally unable to hear anything but those two sides."

I think this might be the future-of-the-human-race question, so I wish I had a better answer. here are a bunch of unsatisfying thoughts instead.

  1. when possible, stick to contexts and topics that aren't epistemic war zones. Of course, this cuts you off from many forms of impact, and sometimes some amount of getting in the mud is necessary. 
  2. if that's not possible, and you have time, work to expand the epistemic refugee zones, where high-quality conversations can take place. 
    1. EA and rationality are these, not as much as I like but far better than baseline, and the rarity is one reason I'm fighting so hard to uphold epistemic standards. 
    2. I don't know if any of the programs that send kids to summer camps alongside opposing ethnic groups are actually any good, but I think it's a reasonable theory of change. 
    3. Ditto for "people libraries" that let people question representatives of some underprivileged group, and explicitly allow stupid and offensive questions.  
  3. if you need to be in the war zone and it's not possible to improve it, you might be tempted to lie. I think that can be morally justified, but the circumstances in which it works are fairly limited.
    1. Obviously you're allowed to lie to Nazis or slave patrols about who is in your attic. But it would be stupid to lie to a risk-averse potential ally, and tell them hosting people in your attic is totally fine, the cops won't care. Because that person will get the people they are "hosting" killed. 
    2. Vegan falsehoods about nutrition don't qualify for this clause because the lie needs to last a lifetime, and it's too easy to get caught. Very few people can be indefinitely gaslit into thinking they're not having health costs when they are.
      1. And the people you can gaslight indefinitely represent the biggest betrayal, because they're the ones who believe in the cause the most. 
      2. Animal advocacy has much less funding than the meat industry. Lying is a symmetric weapon, getting in a symmetric fight with much stronger opponents is a terrible strategy. If you are so woefully outmatched the best tactic is to move to a battleground where you have an advantage.
      3. Even if you can out-lie the meat industry, you can't out-lie people's personal experiences or those of their friends. One friend who tried veganism and developed anemia will counter an infinite amount of leaflets even if the anemia was the friend's fault for eating poorly. 
  4. If you can't avoid the fight, and you can't improve the environment, and it's not in the narrow window where lying will actually work... you sit in a corner and think until you come up with a new plan.  "But it's so bad and so urgent" is only relevant if lying works, and it mostly doesn't. 


To tie this into the original topic: I contend that the high-decoupling, anti-arguments-as-soldiers norms of Effective Altruism and LessWrong have been exceptionally hospitable to concerns about animal suffering.  Most people (even SES-matched people) reflexively push away arguments about factory farming, because they find them inconvenient or emotionally threatening. EAs sat down and listened and supported animal welfare, with money and dietary choices, at much higher than baseline rates.  AFAIK EA is the only place you can "shrimp suffering" without getting laughed out of the building. Rationalists are less hospitable, but still much more so than median. I know a lot of people who absolutely hate vegan advocacy and nonetheless gave up chicken, or researched humaneness certifications to identify the real ones, or purchase only wild caught fish, because they found the arguments for those particular actions convincing even though they found the team that made them awful.

So I claim that not only is "nurture epistemic peace zones" a moral plan in the abstract, it is demonstrably a good plan for animal advocates in particular.  Their use of arguments as soldiers has not only harmed general truthseeking infrastructure, it has harmed infrastructure that had already been tremendously helpful to their specific concerns. 

  1. ^


  2. ^


Tristan Williams

I might return to a more granular focus on what you've said here, but I'm tempted to first dig deeper into a subtopic present here: when is it okay to lie? I'm more specifically interested in the question: when is it okay to influence people towards a decision that they don't necessarily consent to? 

I, for one, am very comfortable with doing whatever we can as a society to discourage cigarette smoking, even if these interventions are subtle and not things current cigarette smokers would consent to if they knew about it (e.g. increasing the tax). Are you against this? Why or why not? 

PS (ala 2b) You should check out Seeds of Peace, a summer camp which brings together Arabs and Israelis, and seems fairly well done to me on a cursory understanding. 


Note to readers: this felt like a pretty different topic, and it took two months just to get this far, so we decided to publish here. We may follow up with another dialogue, and I assure you I have a lot of thoughts on "which lies are okay" that will be published one way or another. 

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To have this sort of love, this commitment to preventing suffering, with animals to me means pretty much just drawing the line at sentient beings and trying to cultivate a basic sense that they matter and that "it's just bad" to eat them.

I feel like the dialogue circled this for a while, and I want to try to poke directly at it again. I think my line is something like "try to only make trades that the other party 'would' consent to," which means eating high-welfare meat if it seems likely that the animals net prefer being raised to be eaten that way to not existing, tho ofc we have to use our judgment instead of theirs. [This article convinced me to avoid chicken products, for example.] It seems to me like you don't accept this, like in this section here:

When I first started to change my diet, I was most appalled at factory farming, and remember that first call with my parents afterwards, trying to soothe their worries by saying "no, no, this doesn't apply to our animals, I'll keep chowing down on Williams family steaks don't you worry. I'll spare you the details, but long story short I came into the thinking of the above slowly and found myself eventually unable to eat even our products, because now it wasn't a steak on my plate, it was a piece of a cow, maybe even a cow like the one I bottlefed for a year growing up and then sold for slaughter, a good cow named Max. 

Like, I think in the picture where you're only willing to eat Max because of a sense that Max was grateful to have been alive at all, this works. Max might have even more preferred to be a pet, but that's not on offer to all hypothetical Maxes. It's only if there's a clear separation between the friends and food category that this doesn't work, and I see how having that category is consistent but it's not obvious to me that it's the right end goal. (I think many historical people have viewed animals as sacred / people / etc. and also as food.)

[Like, you talk about "what if climate change is solved and all the enviro-vegans disappear?", but this feels to me like that worry is somehow broken; like, what if all the factory farms disappear, and on net all farmed animals are grateful to exist? Then it seems like Mission Accomplished to me, even tho I imagine you will still want to be vegan in that world.]

The story that you tell afterwards is mostly about the standards for checking being too high, but I am not sure how practical that is. You bring up the hypothetical of opposing child slavery coal mines, but I think this is actually a problem for cacao production, and so I try to be about as selective in my chocolate sourcing as I am in my steak sourcing--with the understanding that the ethics of "fair trade" or "grass finished" includes some amount of fraud and errors.

Thanks for the continued dialogue, happy to jump back in :)

I think it's very reasonable to take a "what would they consent to" perspective, and I do think this sort of set up would likely lead you to a world where humane executions and lives off the factory farm were approved of. But I guess I'd turn back to my originial point that this sort of relation seems apt to encourage a certain relation to the animal that I think will be naturally unstable and will naturally undermine a caring relationship with that animal. 

Perhaps I just have a dash too much of deontology in me, but if you asked me to choose between a world where many people had kids but they ate them in the end, or a world of significantly fewer kids but where there was no such chowing down at the end of their life, I'd be apt to choose the latter.  But deontology isn't exactly the right frame because again, I think this will just sort of naturally encourage relationships that aren't whole, relationships where you have to do the complicated emotional gymnastics of saying that you love an animal like their your friend one day and then chopping their head from their body the next and savoring the flavor of the flesh on the grill. 

Maybe my view of love is limited, but I also think nearly every example you'd give me of people who've viewed animals as "sacred or people" but still ate them likely had deficient relationship to the animal. Take goats and the Islamic faith, for example. It's not fully the "sacred" category like cows for Hindus, but this animal has come to take a ritualistic role in various celebrations of the relgion, and when I've talked to Muslims about what the reason for this treatment, or things being Halal are, they will normally point out that this is a more humane relation to have with the animal. The meat being "clean" is supposed to imply, to some degree, "moral", but I think this relation isn't quite there. I've seen throat cuttings from Eid which involve younger members of the family being brought into the fold by serving as axeman, often taking multiple strikes to severe the head in a way of slaughter that seems quite far from caring. One friend of mine, who grew up in India with his family raising a number of goats for this occassion, often saw the children loving the goats and having names for them and such. But on Eid this would stop, and I think what the tradition left my friend with is a far more friendly view to meat consumption than he would have developed otherwise. 

My last stab at a response might be to bring up an analogy to slavery. I take the equivalent of your position here to be "look, if each slave can look at the potential life he will hold and prefer that life to no life at all, then isn't that better than him not existing at all?" And to me it seems like I'd be again called to say "no". We can create the life of a slave, we can create the life of a cow who we plan to eat in the end, but I'd rather just call off the suffering all together and refuse to create beings that will be shackled to such a life. It's not a perfect analogy, but I hope it illustrates that we can deny the category entirely, and that that denial can open us up to a better future, one without slaves who prefer their life to not existing, but fellow citizens, one without farmed animals who prefer their life to not existing, but of pets we welcome happily into our families. That is the sort of world I hope for. 

I wrote this post on and off over the course of a morning, and towards the end of it realized:

I'm reading you as saying "eating others is inherently not ok" but I would like it to be ok or not contingent on some other facts (like the absence of suffering, or hypothetical net preference, or the ability of people to not have their souls corrupted by carnivorism, or so on) and the generalization of that reasoning to not have terrible consequences elsewhere. (For example, if you think pleasure can't outweigh suffering, then it seems like having kids at all is indefensible, which is a self-extinguishing moral position; if you think something that taken seriously implies it's not even ok to eat plants, then that's even more self-extinguishing.)

I'll still post the rest of the comment I wrote, which responds to you in more detail, but that seems like the most important piece.

relationships where you have to do the complicated emotional gymnastics of saying that you love an animal like their your friend one day and then chopping their head from their body the next and savoring the flavor of the flesh on the grill.

There's a tumblr post where someone talks about immediately feeling the shepherd impulse when interacting with sheep, a bunch of people like the post, someone points out "how many of you eat lamb", and then the original poster responds with "The ancient shepherds I’m referencing also ate lamb lol"

My sense is that there's a few ways to take this. One of them is "actually the emotional gymnastics is not that complicated!", and another is "actually those ancient shepherds also probably abused their wives and thought slavery was fine when it happened to someone else and mistreated their animals, according to our standards; parents caring about their children / guardians caring about their wards is really not sufficient to guarantee good outcomes or license those relationships." I infer your position is closer to the latter but it really feels like it should be possible to have gains from trade, here.

[And, like, one of the downsides of specialization is that it drives people both unusually interested and unusually disinterested in animal welfare into the 'works with animals' business, which is probably how we got into this factory farming mess in the first place.]

My last stab at a response might be to bring up an analogy to slavery. I take the equivalent of your position here to be "look, if each slave can look at the potential life he will hold and prefer that life to no life at all, then isn't that better than him not existing at all?" And to me it seems like I'd be again called to say "no".

I think one of the main ways my libertarian leanings show up is by being okay with people being able to pick worse things that are cheaper. Let people live in tiny houses and work low-paying jobs and sell their bodies and take high-interest loans if that's the right tradeoff for them; removing their options generally isn't helping them.

I think that could extend all the way to slavery, altho it's hard to imagine situations where that actually makes sense. In general, I think children have only a little bit of debt to their parents (certainly not a lifetime of labor and ownership of all their descendants), which is the closest analogy. Probably more realistic is something like conservatorship, where someone is deemed incompetent to handle their financial or medical affairs, and someone else makes those decisions for them; should people be allowed to voluntarily enter a conservatorship?

A fictional version of this shows up in a video game called The Outer Worlds, where a star system is colonized by a group of corporations, where the colonists are a mixture of 'people who put up the capital for the voyage' and 'people agreeing to come as indentured servants', which leads to a very stratified society on the other side, which predictably starts to decay as the colonists have children with huge differences in inherited wealth. Even if Alice decided it was worth being a laborer somewhere new rather than being stuck on Earth, her daughter Carol might not feel like she's bought into this situation and want to violently redistribute things, and it's not obvious that Alice should be able to sell Carol's compliance with society.

But you could imagine that, if Alice can't bind Carol, the colony doesn't go thru, and Carol never comes to exist, and on net Carol is sad about that outcome, and would have preferred having been bound. It feels like an actually thorny question to figure out what tradeoffs precisely make sense, especially because this is a collective bargaining issue (it's not like existing societies get unanimous consent from their participants!) and the empirical tradeoffs are all hypothetical. [My actual expectation is that we get material abundance before we get any interstellar colonies, and so it's not important to get this question right because it'll never come up.]

That is the sort of world I hope for. 

To be clear, this is a world without cats and snakes and other obligate carnivores, right? Or is the plan to first figure out synthetic sources of the various nutrients they need?

[It will also have many fewer other animals--I think on average something like a third of a cow is alive because of my beef consumption--but depending on what you think the limiting factors are, that may mean replacement with fractional vegan humans instead, which is probably an upgrade.]

Re: ancient shepherds.

Achilles in Vietnam has a thesis that ancient warriors had a lot of respect for their enemy, but modern armies tend to position enemies as weak and low-status. Those give death and losing a very different valence. Obviously you prefer winning, but if you lose, well at least some of you got to die gloriously. This is pretty much lost today, and makes losing or watching your friends die in battle feel much worse. 

This attitude[1] seems really easy to transfer to hunting, which takes a lot of skill and some risk. I imagine that as you move from true hunting of dangerous animals, to pastoralism, to domesticated sheep, to factory farming you lose more and more respect for the animals, and this enables them to treat them worse. 

So it seems plausible that ancient shepherd did have more respect for animals while killing them, and this showed up in material ways, although probably that representation is also romanticized. 

  1. ^

    I don't know if the book's claims are true


Ancient warriors enslaved their captives.

And that was also viewed fairly differently than chattel slavery.

Mmm okay a bit confused by the thrust of the first bit. Is it that you wish to set yourself apart from my view because you see it unavoidably leading to untenable positions (like self-extinguishing)?

Jumping to the rest of it, I liked how you put the latter option for the positioning of the shepard. I'm not sure the feeling out of the "shepard impulse" is something where the full sort of appreciation I think is important has come out.

But I think you're right to point towards a general libertarian viewpoint as a crux here, because I'm relatively willing to reason through what's good and bad for the community and work towards designing a world more in line with that vision, even if it's more choice constrained.

But yeah, the society is a good example to help us figure out where to draw that line. It makes me most immediately wonder: is there anything so bad that you'd want to restrict people from doing it, even if they voluntarily entered into it? Is creating lives one of the key goods to you, such that most forms of lives will be worth just existing?

To answer your last question, it's the latter, a world where synthetic alternatives and work on ecological stability yields a possibility of a future for predators who no longer must kill for survival. It would certainly mean a lot less cows and chickens exist, but my own conclusions from the above questions lead me to thinking this would be a better world.