I became a vegetarian on Memorial Day 2014, or as I now call it, Meatmorial Day. I woke up to a text from a friend about how she was frustrated that more self-identified rationalists and effective altruists aren’t at least vegetarian if not vegan. I said it was a case of differing values between well-meaning people, but she was having none of it.
Her: why won’t u eat rabbits?
Me: because i had them as pets. i know them too well. they’re like people to me.
Her: i will get you a pet chicken
Me: omg i’m a vegetarian now :-/
Here’s what happened in my mind. I imagined a world in which I had a pet chicken. Over time I’d grow to know it and think of it as worthy of moral consideration. Once that happened, I’d no longer be able to eat chickens. I could apply the same process to all animals, and so by induction I would be unwilling to eat any animal. And since I already live in a world where I had pet rabbits, chinchillas, and cats to ground this induction process, my preferences immediately updated to include this extrapolation, making me a vegetarian.
She was surprised this worked, but it seems I was really a vegetarian all along, I just didn’t know it. I hadn’t sat down and worked the logic to realize the consequences of my beliefs. I probably even avoided doing it for fear that I would become a vegetarian. It worked because I was already a vegetarian in my heart, but needed a little help to become one in my head.
I was reminded of this the other night when I was having dinner with friends and roommates and the conversation turned to what sources of meat the vegetarians at the table, myself included, were willing eat when necessary (for some fuzzy definition of “necessary”). Most were willing to bend on eating either fish or shellfish, but I took the unusual stance of being willing to eat only pork.
To understand this, let’s start with what kind of meat I won’t eat. I tend to think of meat in 4 or 5 categories: seafood, poultry, beef, pork, and other, the last of which some people divide between domesticated sources and wild sources. Even in my meat-eating days, I was hesitant to eat seafood. To be fair, I had a certain distaste for seafood having not grown up eating it much beyond fish sticks, but I never sought to develop a taste for seafood because of the broad damage caused by eating it.
Most of this is from the ecological impact of fishing which is unsustainable at current levels. People simply eat more seafood than the Earth can sustainably produce right now, and seafood should be much more expensive but fails to price in externalities like long-term environmental effects and future unavailability of fish. Even aquaculture, i.e. fish farming, has major ecological impacts by producing lots of nitrogen and other waste products that must be dumped, contributing to phenomena like the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. And this is to say nothing of the plausible suffering of sea animals used for food.
Speaking of suffering, by pound consumed in the US poultry is nearly synonymous with chicken, which sucks because by calorie eating chickens in general and their eggs in particular generate the most deaths per calorie of any land animal consumed. The picture isn’t any better if you consider suffering or quality adjusted life years, and chicken farms, even cage free ones, are essentially chicken hell based on our understanding of chicken psychology. Turkeys, geese, and ducks receive similar poor treatment, making all poultry unappealing to me.
Beef seems much better than chicken in terms of suffering, and dairy is comparatively fantastic. To give you an idea, a typical American eats enough meat in a year to consume less than one cow if all they ate was beef, as opposed to a couple pigs or dozens of chickens. Unfortunately, like with seafood, cattle farming is ecologically harmful, producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, using up lots of water (most of it to make cow food, aka grass), and destroying large swaths of natural habitat to create ranches. These externalities are not priced into beef, so even if eating cows and cow products produces less suffering than from farming any other animal, shared environmental assets are substantially harmed. That said, if I was forced to choose is between beef and chicken, I’d choose beef.
As for other sources of meat, wild and domesticated, I generally ignore them because they are not commonly available enough to be worth considering for this question. Lamb, goat, deer, rabbit, buffalo, ostrich, and others are sometimes available, but all require some additional effort to obtain. Unlike seafood, poultry, beef, and pork, other meat sources aren’t the defaults you can generally expect to find everywhere, to an extent that it seems unlikely it would be necessary for me to eat them since non-meat alternatives are as easy if not easier to get. I’m not saying I would be as unwilling to eat, say, deer as I am unwilling to eat chicken, but I’d probably only seriously consider it if, for example, there was deer overpopulation, culling was in effect, and the meat would otherwise be wasted. But again, for the effort involved in ensuring this I could just eat vegetables and avoid the issue altogether with an outcome I’d prefer — eating vegetables strictly dominates eating other meats for me.
This leaves us only pork to consider. Pork is probably the easiest meat to convince people not to eat because pigs are charismatic and friendly. Which, from my point of view, is unfortunate because pigs strike a balance between the lower suffering, higher ecological impact of beef and the higher suffering, lower ecological impact of chicken. Additionally, because pigs are relatable like dogs, cats, primates, and dolphins, I can appreciate that most pig lives seem worth living, just as most human lives, no matter how much suffering they contain, seem to be worth living. So on the whole I feel fairly neutral about eating pigs, so I’m most willing to eat them out of all animals if necessary.
But (there’s always a “but”), I eat way more dairy and eggs than pork, as in I regularly eat dairy and don’t try too hard not to eat eggs but eat pork no more often than any other meat, which is to say basically never unless my eating it is acausal to satisfying my preferences, e.g. if I were to dumpster dive, or I am forced to eat meat as a tradeoff against less desired alternatives. What gives? Well, as an American surrounded by meat eating conspecifics, I can get more of what I want by looking like a vegetarian than personally minimizing my direct impact on other animal preference satisfaction. That is to say, my preferences are best satisfied by signaling to others that I don’t eat meat.
My reasoning is thus. Vegetarians are relatively rare in America and most Americans eat meat by default. When I go out to eat, which is often, my choices are often limited, so much so that there is little I would like to eat at most restaurants. It’s harder to be a vegetarian in America than not, so as a result we should expect fewer people on the margin to become vegetarians or eat meat less often. Therefore, both because I want it to be easier for me to not eat animal products and I suspect a large impact I can have medium-to-long-term on satisfying my preference for respecting the preferences of animals is to make it easier for other people to eat less meat, I clearly signal culturally and financially that I have vegetarian preferences, thus normalizing vegetarianism and incentivizing catering to vegetarian preferences.
As you may have noticed, I became a vegetarian via preference utilitarianism, but stay a vegetarian to signal virtue. That would be pretty confused moral reasoning, except properly I don’t think morality is a category of thing that exists in the world and instead is an illusion created by seeing the world through a frame that does not include system relationships. But I do recognize preferences, my own preferences include a preference for the maximization of the preferences of others all else equal, and as a result I think in a way that generally aligns with the moral theory of preference utilitarianism, but if I had different preferences about the preferences of others I could just as easily be a deontologist or virtue theorist in terms of morality, so I see no problem in the contradictions that result from flatting my thinking into terms of morality.
Thus my vegetarianism is instrumental, I encourage others to share my preferences by signaling my vegetarianism, but I most prefer to eat pork if I must eat meat, and would probably choose it over cheese and eggs if I did not need to signal virtue.