When should an Effective Altruist be vegetarian?

by KatjaGrace8 min read22nd Nov 201481 comments


Animal Welfare
Personal Blog

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.

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Vegetables harm animals too: 0.9

Given that it takes substantially more vegetables to raise animals than it would to get the same amount of calories from eating them directly, shouldn't that number be above one?

0ThisSpaceAvailable6yOne could argue that eating a free-range animal that collects its own food causes fewer animal deaths than eating industrially grown plants.
0someonewrongonthenet6yNot if [cost of animals] also includes [cost of plants to feed animals] (But in general I still think this whole thing has to be way off, even by back-of-the-envelope standards)
2DanielLC6yThe calculation he was using this to multiply by did not include cost of plants to feed animals.

Moral value of small animals: 0.05

Does this mean the animal is 1/20th of a human? (If so, doesn't that mean you can eat human flesh w/ a 4 cent utilitarian tax all else being equal?)

5someonewrongonthenet6yAnd just so we're clear - I don't intend that in a "boo meat eating, let me compare it to violating a sacred value to make it seem dirty" way, I totally support the general idea of trying to calculate the ethical costs of things in dollar amounts. I mean it in a "there is absolutely no way serving factory farmed human flesh would be that ethically clean in a world where we did that sort of thing and if it is we have a lot of practical stuff to re-think, so your analysis must necessarily be fundamentally flawed and off by several orders of magnitude but I do want a real answer so don't stop trying to do what you're doing" way - assuming I understand correctly. I have seen various attempts at doing this but nothing particularly convincing. (You did give me the idea to use human flesh tax as a sanity check for these sorts of things though, so thank you!.)
1Unknowns6yI wasn't sure what she meant by that exactly either, but if did mean something like that, it should have been much, much smaller. Suppose you have a trolley problem where you have the possibility to push your neighbor Peter onto the track in order to save 21 chickens...
3someonewrongonthenet6yThat's definitely putting the chicken on a high pedestal, but I don't see that as an issue. I think the intention was to grossly over-estimate, which is a valid thing to do in this scenario.. The main problem is that no matter what you set the ratio of animal to human worth, you still end up with the 4 cent figure for human meat, which means that any price estimate coming out of this model will be ridiculously low.
1Jiro6yI think a lot of this kind of vegetarianism argument relies on humans' tendency to grossly overestimate in certain situations. Numbers like 0.05 seem like nice sensible small numbers. They feel reasonable. Few people when thinking "maybe this has a small ratio" will spontaneously pick 0.000000001. That feels like too small a number and if you're even thinking about something you feel it should have some value higher than that. Then the vegetarian calculates using the overestimate and concludes eating animals is horrific. The Drake Equation does something similar for calculating how many extraterrestrial civilizations there might be.

I care about the environment. In particular, I care about the existence and flourishing of animals. This is not a rare concern. Very many people are saddened by, for example, the fate of the Bengal tiger.

However, people killing tigers is not why tigers are endangered. We kill several orders of magnitudes more chickens per year, and yet gallus gallus domesticus is far from endangered. Tigers are endangered because they are not very useful to people, so secure property rights have never been created in them. However, if this were to change, then tigers would... (read more)

chickens flourish

Not many vegetarians would agree. Is farm chicken life is worth living? Does the large number of farm chickens really have net positive effect on animal wellbeing?

Animals that aren't useful

What about the recreational value of wild animals?

0Salemicus6yI have no idea what that question even means. I don't want to save the Bengal tiger because I think it has a "life worth living" but because I want the species to flourish. But to the extent that you are concerned that battery chickens have negative lives, why become a vegetarian? Eat free range meat. Or eat only hunted meat. And why make a fuss about trace amounts of meat products in your cheese or whatever? Isn't it suspicious that people who make the strange claim that animals count as objects of moral concern also make the strange claim that animal lives aren't worth living and also cash out that concern by a dietary purity ritual? Were I a cynic, I might even think that the religious-seeming ritual were the whole point, and the elaborate epicyclical theology built around it a mere after-the-fact justification.
9RobertWiblin6y"Isn't it suspicious that people who make the strange claim that animals count as objects of moral concern also make the strange claim that animal lives aren't worth living" No, this makes perfect sense. 1. They decide animals are objects of moral concern. 2. Look into the conditions they live in, and decide that in some cases they are worse than not being alive. 3. Decide it's wrong to fund expansion of a system that holds animals in conditions that are worse than not being alive at all.
1Lumifer6yIsn't a direct consequence of (2) is that those animals are better off dead than alive and so, if the opportunity to (relatively costlessly) kill some of them arises, one should do so?
4DanielLC6yIs that supposed to be reductio ad absurdum? Euthanizing feral pets is standard. I'd do the same for livestock.
0Lumifer6yI don't know whether we'd get to absurdum, so far I'm trying to figure out how far you (that is, the general-vegetarian "you") are willing to take this reasoning.
1RobertWiblin6yIf you can't otherwise improve their lives, the death is painless, and murder isn't independently bad.
0Lumifer6yWell, not quite. If you think being dead has positive utility for this creature, this positive utility is not necessarily small. If so, you need to weight the issues in killing against that positive utility. For example, let's take "death is painless" -- actually, if the negative utility of the painful death is not as great as the positive utility of dying, you would still be justified and obligated to impose that painful death upon the creature as the net result is positive utility.
1RobertWiblin6yI was just giving what would be sufficient conditions, but they aren't all necessarily necessary.
2Kaura6yIn general, vegetarians don't care as much about e.g. species flourishing as they do about the vast amounts of suffering that farmed animals are quite likely to experience. I see nothing strange in viewing animals as morally relevant and deeming their life a net negative, thus hoping they wouldn't have to exist. Eating only free range or hunted meat is a pretty good option, although of course not entirely unproblematic, from the suffering-reduction point of view. It is very often brought up by non-vegetarians whenever the topic of animal suffering comes up - anecdotally I counted four people I know who I have heard using the argument when explaining or defending their meat eating. None of them actually even eats mainly free range or hunted meat. To me, it seems the whole point is unfortunately only ever used as a motte [http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/] that people retreat to to avoid having to feel or look bad, before again just eating whatever as soon as they can stop thinking about it. This might not mean these people don't really care on some level: I'd guess it is more expensive cognitively to analyze and keep tabs on which meat products cause only acceptable amounts of suffering, without succumbing to rationalization and constant habit-breaking and eventually forgetting the project, than it is to just rule meat out of your diet and stop thinking about it. Another reason why free-range and hunted meat are not quite equivalent to veg(etari)anism is that they don't seem to scale as easily to feed large populations for a reasonable land area and product price. That said, I for one would welcome a society which mostly eats plant-based food, but with the very occasional expensive hunted or ethically-farmed piece of meat or cheese, which indeed seems like what a non-factory-farming omnivore society could end up looking like. (Of course, for us embracing a more negative form of utilitarianism, wild-animal suffering would
2IlyaShpitser6yDo you want the human species to flourish in a way different from the way you want the chicken species to flourish. If yes, in what ways? If not, do you object to a North Korea style singleton government (which will solve a lot of present coordination problems for us, for a nominal utility fee of course)?
2Salemicus6yYes, I view humans as substantially different from chickens and relate to them in a very different way. I view this as a strength of my position, not a weakness.
0gedymin6yYou should have started by describing your interpretation of what the word "flourish" means. I don't think it's a standard one (any links to prove the opposite?). For now this thread is going nowhere because of disagreements on definitions [http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions/].
2Salemicus6yOne of the things I hate most about this website is the people who love to claim that ordinary usages of English words are somehow non-standard or obscure. Do you see anything about "a life worth living"?
1IlyaShpitser6yDo you think factory-farmed animals grow and develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment?
4Salemicus6yI'm not sure what you mean by "factory-farmed," but cows, sheep, pigs and free-range chickens seem healthy and vigorous. I've never been inside a battery-farm or a veal pen, but I'll grant arguendo that those animals aren't healthy or vigorous. But that's an argument for eating free-range chicken, not for vegetarianism.
0DanielLC6yDoes it matter? He has established that he does not think their happiness is important. It's clear you two care about two different things. There is no point in further establishing what he means by "flourish".
6[anonymous]6yMany more humans would be able to "flourish" if we just ate most of them shortly after their birth. The fattest of the males might be kept as studs to continuously impregnate the females while the females' breasts could be continuously pumped for their milk which is then bottled and sold in stores. Since we wouldn't have to waste resources on them for things like education, medical care, bedding, or proper shelter, this could be done at a fraction of the cost of raising a regular child. We might select them from the homeless and mentally ill who are currently a net drain on resources. And what would they have to complain about? After all, they're "flourishing."
2Salemicus6yThis only works as a reductio if you consider people and animals to have the same moral worth, and relate to them in the same way. If that kind of view is a necessary foundation for vegetarianism, then vegetarianism just becomes even more absurd. The overwhelming majority of vegetarians don't believe anything of the sort.
-4[anonymous]6yIf eating animals has positive value because it contributes "to the continuation of these species" as you're claiming and humans have greater value than other animals, then a logical conclusion is that eating humans has even greater value than eating other animals because you're maximizing the continuation of the most important species. It does not at all require equivalent moral worth. EDIT - reworded for clarity
0Salemicus6yBut it does require relating to them in the same way, so re-read and try again.
2roystgnr6yMy goals seem to be more in line with yours than those of most of the people criticizing you; perhaps you'll also find one of my concerns more apt: The chickens which are flourishing do not all remain the same chickens. [http://www.vox.com/xpress/2014/10/2/6875031/chickens-breeding-farming-boilers-giant] As soon as farmers can more-cheaply harvest chicken from something like Chicken Little [http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1002], most of them will. Even in the meantime, if you care about the existence of chickens who can do things like living a full lifespan without their legs or hearts failing, you're going to have to hope that there's always enough other people like you [http://www.globalanimalpartnership.org/the-5-step-program/] to support a niche market of 200%-more-expensive chicken.
0DanielLC6yYou could just genetically modify chickens to die younger, so that is their full lifespan. Unless you mean that you want them to live as long as possible, in which case you should start with an animal with a longer lifespan.
0DanielLC6yCaring about individual animals and caring about species are two very different things. The continuation of the species for domesticated animals is exactly what I as a vegetarian want to prevent. I am not certain whether or not the lives of wild animals are worth living, but if I find that they are not, I hope to stop the continuation of those species as well.
1Salemicus6yWe seem to have very different goals, which is fine. But, out of curiosity - why do you wish to prevent the existence of domesticated animals? Is it a terminal goal, or is it in service of something else?
1DanielLC6yI want to prevent the suffering of domesticated animals. The simplest way is to prevent their existence.
1Lumifer6yAny reason this argument won't apply to certain subsets of humans?
1DanielLC6yI'm in favor of Euthanasia. I'm also in favor of not having kids if you know you have some kind of genetic problem. I am against Euthanasia without consent, but that's more for political reasons. People don't take it well if you decide if their life is worth living, and the associated problems are not worth the benefit of them not living in pain. Is there any particular example you have in mind?
4Lumifer6y"Euthanasia without consent" -- is that what is more commonly known as "murder"? Yes, I would imagine they don't...
0Wrong_Species6yBlack people went on to become numerous slaves instead of nearly exterminated like the Native Americans in the US. I'm not really sure if that's the kind of standard we should aspire to.

Farmed Oysters. Ocean filter feeders, so ecological impact as low as is at all feasible and often net-positive : Oyster farming operations can improve the health of coastal waters and lakes with a lot of nutrient run-off greatly. Nothing that even looks like a brain. Basically, it's a meat plant.

.. Uhm.. I hate my current job, oyster farming for food is an idea that hasn't caught on here yet due to not invented here, near as I can tell... I really should get on that, shouldn't I?....

2DanielLC6yI consider oysters fine to eat. I am told that, even if insects are sentient, they most likely would enjoy the sort of conditions that would be used in factory farming, so they're good too. I have not been told if that extends to shrimp.
1gjm6yI have a hazy memory of reading that the conditions under which (some) shrimp are farmed are very bad for the people involved. My memory is hazy and I didn't check very carefully when I heard that, but if you eat a lot of shrimp you might want to investigate.
[-][anonymous]6y 5

1) The calculation is wrong. If point 1 is the base number (which you seem to be setting at 0.05 of $5), then point 5 (value animal places on their own life) should increase the value of vegetarianism however it decreases it in your model.

2) You're setting the value of 12.5 days of human suffering at $5. That is insane. By comparison, governments tend to set a human life at $10,000,000, and average lifespans are around 78 years, so 12.5 days is equivalent to about $4,000. The UK's QALY is set at $50,000 which comes to $1,700.

3) T̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶i̶s̶n̶'̶t̶ ̶a̶... (read more)

You're setting the value of 12.5 days of human suffering at $5. That is insane. By comparison, governments tend to set a human life at $10,000,000, and average lifespans are around 78 years, so 12.5 days is equivalent to about $4,000. The UK's QALY is set at $50,000 which comes to $1,700.

Our world is insane. You can currently pay $5 and alleviate 12.5 days of human suffering.

(That's $146 per QALY/DALY, which is close to GiveWell's estimate for the benefit of donating to SCI. See how cost effective is mass deworming.)

4DanielFilan6yThis is interesting - I tend to make the opposite argument that people should initially focus on giving up fish, chicken, and eggs, because they constitute the vast majority of animals that die for the average American meat-eater's diet [http://www.upc-online.org/slaughter/2011americans.pdf]. The way the numbers work out, you would need to think it's ~100x less likely that fish and chickens were sentient for the argument for eating fish/chickens rather than cows/pigs to work. I think that fish and chickens are not that much less likely to be sentient, but I'd be interested in hearing an argument that they were.
2[anonymous]6yI was thinking in terms of a per animal basis. I hadn't considered total consummation. My reasons for being a pollotarian and later a vegetarian has to do with gradual changes in my views over time and not as simple as animal rights considerations. However, one argument along these lines is ostroveganism [http://sentientist.org/2013/05/20/the-ethical-case-for-eating-oysters-and-mussels/] . Mammals' understanding of pain is, from what I can gather, very similar to our own. As you move into animals less closely related to us, their nervous systems become less and less similar.
0DanielFilan6yI think that the argument also holds on a per-unit of meat basis (therefore controlling for the quantity that humans eat), although you only get a factor of 20 for chickens vs cows. (Here [http://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/] is source, warning that you have to scroll through pictures of chickens and fish being tortured to get to the numbers). I also sort of agree with the case for ostroveganism, although I haven't thought about it much since I find the thought of eating seafood viscerally disgusting anyway. I agree that we should think that animals further away from us evolutionarily are less likely to be sentient and suffer, but I'm not sure that the drop is as big as a factor of 10.
0DanielLC6yI suggest sticking with poultry, since that reduces the harm by 99% regardless of who's right. (I pulled that number out of nowhere, but you get the point.)
3RowanE6yThose examples you're using to set the value of human life are not of people paying to save human lives generally, they're of people who want to save the lives of specifically a group of people for whom adding QALYs is very expensive. They might seem emotionally closer to what a human life is "worth", but the relevant thing to this question is what the lowest price QALYs can be reliably bought for is.
1[anonymous]6yYes, but that sort of thinking is only really useful if you're trying to maintain neutral-utility at the lowest cost. It's not what most would aspire to. That's not even utilitarianism really; it's just the closest thing I could think of.
1DanielLC6yIt's useful if you're trying to maintain X utility at the lowest cost for any X. It's also useful if you're trying to maximize utility at a given cost Y. If you only have a finite amount of money, it's useful.
0RowanE6yOne might be deciding to increase the amount of utility they're adding, and deciding between vegetarianism and donating more money to effective charities than they were already giving. The limit is how hard it is for the altruist to do each of those things, so if they find giving the amount to achieve an equivalent amount of good to going vegan is less painful than for them to go vegan, they should do that. Caring the amount a utilitarian "should" is enough to grind most people to dust (I, personally, faced an opposite issue of looking at the problem and immediately giving up on morality and becoming functionally an egoist).
0[anonymous]6yFair enough. I retract the first sentence of point 3.

I think there is perhaps too much focus on the bright schelling fence of "any" meat consumption rather than marginal meat consumption. I have multiple reasons that each nudge me in the direction of consuming less meat on the margin, but I'm not very interested in vegetarianism as an identity.

For me, "Don't eat meat" is about as difficult as "Don't wear the color blue". It's not a large sacrifice. Yes, I may not be typical.

98% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass are humans or their pets or (mostly) their livestock. Statistics like those freak me out enough to think it's worth reducing my ecological footprint.

The optimal amount of meat to eat might be above zero, just as the most effective amount of heroine to ingest might be above zero, but resisting an alluring steak doesn't deplete psychic energy if your brain doesn't register steak as food.

I found attempts to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet dramatically reduced my quality of life. Especially veganism was almost unbearable. I couldn't even have a slice of pizza or an ice cream cone! given my experience unless I was 100% convinced I was absolutely obligated to become a vegetarian/vegan I would not do so.

I do however donate 10% of my pre-tax income to developing nations. Which works out to a very large (imo) percentage of my take home pay. I also find this rather unpleasant and distressing but arguments on lesswrong convinced me I was basically obligated to do it. And losing 10% of my pre-tax income is far less painful then giving up meat and vastly less painful than giving up meat + dairy.

It is interesting people have such different internal reactions.

1RobertWiblin6yFor what it's worth, I've found being vegetarian almost no effort at all. Being vegan is a noticeable inconvenience, especially cutting out the last bits of dairy (and that shows up in your examples, which are both about dairy).
1DanielFilan6yI'm sorry that your stint with veganism was so unpleasant. There are ways to make it more pleasant though - I regularly eat vegetarian pizza without the cheese, which is a lot more tasty than I imagined it would be before I tried it. Also, vegan ice cream is definitely a thing (both sorbets and soy ice cream fit the bill), although it's probably not sold at ice cream places. I think the reason that veganism is so easy for me to do is because I substitute tasty non-vegan foods, so it doesn't feel like deprivation. For instance, if I want a warm hearty meal, I'll have dahl instead of a steak, or if I feel junk-food-snacky, I'll get oreos or skittles rather than non-vegan foods.
0gedymin6ySlippery slope, plain and simple. http://xkcd.com/1332/ [http://xkcd.com/1332/] Reducing mean consumption does not imply never eating ice cream.
3[anonymous]6yNot wearing anything blue would be a heckuva sacrifice for me. ;-)
0ESRogs6yYeah, I was surprised that was used as an example of something easy.
2solipsist6yIt would be hard adjusting at first (I currently wear blue almost every day), but after a year with a new wardrobe it would be so easy as to barely be worth mentioning.

I'm not strictly a vegetarian/vegan for similar reasons; however, I've found that by trying to eat extremely cheaply, I end up basically as a vegetarian by default (aside from the occasional piece of bacon in my canned beans). Nevertheless, I do tend to gravitate towards meat products whenever free food is available, and my diet is still a ways from vegan. In my case, I don't think purposefully trying to avoid animal products would be worth the additional stress and chance of burn out.

I tried something vaguely similar with completely different assumptions. I basically ignored the number of animal deaths in favor of minimizing the amount of animal torture. The whole thing was based on how many animals it takes before empathy kicks in, rather than an actual utility comparison.

I instinctively distrust animal-to-human utility conversions, but the ideal version of your method is better than the ideal version of mine. I do recommend that meat eaters do what I did to establish an upper bound, though. It might even convince someone to change th... (read more)

Two objections for these calculations - first, they do not take into account the inherent inefficiency of meat production (farm animals only convert a few percent of the energy in their food to consumable products), its contribution to global carbon emission and pollution. Second, they do not take into account the animals displaced and harmed by the indirect effects of meat production. It requires larger areas for farmlands than vegetarian or seafood based diets would.

0DanielLC6yAnd where it gets really interesting is when you wonder if wild animals' lives are worth living. It's entirely possible that it's good to eat meat because it prevents more suffering from crowding out wild animals than it causes to the animals being farmed.

Thank you for posting this analysis. I enjoy reading posts of this nature.

$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.

Right, thanks for adding that disclaimer to this estimate. If someone had convinced me to become a vegetarian by paying for an ad (which I hypothetically clicked on) to be shown online, I would feel like I deserved to receive the credit for the preven... (read more)

1DanielLC6yWhy do you consider those mutually exclusive? I see no reason why responsibility cannot add to more than one. We're not deontologists here (unless you are, in which case ignore this comment). If both of you saved the animals, then both of you get credit for it.
0Fluttershy6yLet's say that three individuals (Alice, Bob, and Carol) each hypothetically consider the benefit of one meat-eater becoming vegetarian for exactly one month (after which point the person again begins to eat meat just as frequently as they used to) as being worth 10, 15, and 20 USD per month, respectively. Carol pays Bob, who is very persuasive, $15 to have a conversation with Alice to convince her to become a vegetarian for exactly one month. Bob values his time, and would never normally accept less than $25 for performing such a service, but is willing to charge $15 to speak with Alice, because he values converting meat-eaters to vegetarians. Let's assume that Bob is perfectly persuasive, and will reliably cause Alice to become a vegetarian for exactly one month if and only if he is paid to chat with her. Alice thinks meat is tasty, so she values the ability to eat meat as being worth $5 per month, but she will realize that she actually values the reduction in animal suffering which would be caused by her being vegetarian for one month at 10 USD if Bob is paid to talk to Alice. In this scenario, the parties incur the following costs in order to get Alice to become a vegetarian for one month: Alice: 5 Bob: 10 Carol: 15 This adds up to a total cost of $30 across all parties, even though no party actually values converting a person to vegetarianism for exactly one month as being worth more than $20. Please forgive any silly-feeling aspects of this model, as it is a hypothetical/toy model, after all.
1DanielLC6yHow much do they disvalue each other losing money? If they don't care at all, then the given scenario would be better than nothing for all involved. If they do care, then that should count as a cost, and should be considered accordingly. I generally value someone having a few dollars as worth vastly less than the same amount of money donated to the best charity, so I would be willing to pay essentially that much to get that person to donate. Edit: Consider this similar scenario. Alice, Bob, and Carol are roommates. They find a nice picture at a store for $30. Alice values having the picture in their living room at $10, Bob at $15, and Carol at $20. They agree to split the costs, with Alice paying $5, Bob paying $10, and Carol paying $15. This adds up to a total cost of $30 across all parties, even though no party actually values the painting as being worth more than $20. Is there any sort of paradox going on here?
2gjm6yIn the case of the picture, presumably what Alice values is "Alice being able to look at the picture", what Bob values is "Bob being able to look at the picture", and likewise for Carol. (If not -- if each is making a serious attempt to include the others' benefit from the picture -- then indeed their decision is probably a mistake.) But with Alice, Bob and Carol all interested in having someone become a vegetarian, what they're valuing is (something like) "a person-month less of animal-eating", and if you add up all their individual values for that you're double-counting (er, triple-counting). Perhaps it's more obvious if we suppose that they somehow get hold of a list of people who are keen on vegetarianism, and find that each one of those 10,000 people values a person-month of vegetarianism at $10. Is it now a good deal if all of them spend $10 to make Alice a vegetarian for a month? Has her abstinence from meat for that month suddenly done 3000x more good than when it was just her, Bob and Carol who knew about it?
0DanielLC6yWhy are you adding utility functions together? We're discussing what an effective altruist who cares about animals should do as an individual. We are not trying to work out CEV or something. If we did, I'd hope animals get counted for more than just how much the humans care about them on average. If Alice is an effective altruist and Bob and Carol are not, in which case it can be assumed that Bob and Carol's money would otherwise be wasted on themselves when they don't need it very much, or possibly on charity that doesn't do very much good, then Alice shouldn't care much how much Bob and Carol pay. I don't think a situation that extreme can really come up. If the whole thing will stop because of one person not donating, there's no way the other 10,000 people will all donate.
1gjm6yI'm not. I'm (well, actually Fluttershy is and I'm agreeing) adding amounts of money together, and I'm suggesting that to make the Alice/Bob/Carol outcome seem like a good one you'd have to add together utility functions that ought not to be added together (even if one were generally willing to add up utility functions). Look again at the description of the situation: Alice, Bob and Carol are all making their ethical position on meat-eating a central part of their decision-making. For each of them, at least about half of their delta-utility-converted-to-dollars in this situation is coming from the reduction in animal suffering that they anticipate. They are choosing their actions to optimize the outcome including this highly-weighted concern about animal suffering. This is the very definition of effective altruism. (Or at least of attempted effective altruism. Any of them might be being incompetent. But we don't usually require competence before calling someone an EA.) If some line of reasoning gives absurd results in such an extreme situation, then either there's something wrong with the reasoning or there's something about the extremeness of the situation that invalidates the reasoning even though it wouldn't invalidate it in a less extreme situation. I don't see that there's any such thing in this case. BUT I do actually think there's something wrong with Fluttershy's example, or at least something that makes it more difficult to reason about than it needs to be, and that's the way that the participants' values and/or knowledge change. Specifically, at the start of the experiment Alice is eating meat even though (on reflection + persuasion) she actually values a month's animal suffering more than a month's meat-eating pleasure. Are we to assess the outcome on the basis of Alice's final values, or her initial values (whatever they may have been)? I think different answers to this question yield different conclusions about whether something paradoxical is going
0Fluttershy6yPerhaps there's an intervention (buying a certain number of free range eggs and selling them at the price of eggs from cage-raised hens, let's say), which costs $20 and prevents as much suffering as Alice would prevent by becoming a vegetarian for exactly one month in the above example. In this case, Alice, Bob, and Carol would better achieve their goals by donating to an organization which buys free range eggs and sells them to the public at the same price at which normal eggs are sold, than they would by investing in making Alice a vegetarian. In this way, having multiple people believe that they should be the sole individual to receive credit for causing a given intervention to be implemented can result in suboptimal outcomes.
0DanielLC6yIf Alice knows Bob and Carol would otherwise donate to such an intervention, and she goes with that other plan you gave, then she's responsible for the donations they failed to receive. I think it can generally be assumed that people will not donate their money wisely, so you don't have to worry.

I feel like you don't understand vegetarians very well. Lets say that I am wealthy slave owner in the middle 19th century. I could free my slaves but I think it would be more altruistic to instead use my money to set up schools for poor(white) kids. Does that mean I'm off the hook for keeping my slaves?

This EY post seems extremely relevant: Ends Don't Justify Means (Among Humans).

0yli6yAgreed. Of course the thing about means and ends is that you can always frame the situation in two opposing ways: Way 1: Eating factory farmed meat and not worrying about it in order to better focus on third world donations is the same as making the following means-end tradeoff: * Means: Torturing animals * End: Saving lives in the third world Way 2: Avoiding meat in order to not support factory farming despite the fact that such avoiding causes costs* that lessen the effectiveness of your EA activities is the same as making the following means-end tradeoff: * Means: Letting people in the third world die * End: Saving animals from being tortured So which ends don't justify which means? ... Of course for the majority of people it's more like: * Means: Torturing animals * End: Access to certain tasty foods And * Means: Depriving yourself of certain tasty foods * End: Saving animals from being tortured * It's not clear that it does but that's what the original post assumes so for the sake of example I'm going with it.
0DanielFilan6yI think that the point of the original post was to basically say "humans can justify doing things that our systems 1 want to do, by saying that they're for the good of everyone". With this in mind, you would expect people to be more OK with eating meat and animal products than they should be, because our systems 1 don't really care about people far away from us who we have never met, meaning that way 2 doesn't apply. I do think that there's a logical equivalence between your way 1 and way 2, which is why I think that utilitarianism is the correct theory of morality, but I don't think that they're psychologically equivalent at all.

I personally think there's not a lot of hope for animals as long as humans can't sort out their own mess. On the other hand, I don't think there is much hope for humanity as long as altruism stands in for actually taking responsibility. The very social system that puts $5 in our pockets to donate creates those who depend on our charity.