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: …
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.


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22 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:29 PM

The initial argument that convinced you to not eat meat seems very strange to me:

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.

This reads to me as: I don't think eating rabbits is immoral, but I have an aesthetic aversion to them because of emotional attachment, rather than moral consideration. Is that not the right reading?

Her: i will get you a pet chicken Me: … Me: omg i’m a vegetarian now :-/

So, you've now built extended your emotional attachment towards rabbits to all animals? Or just the possibly-pettable-ones? But firstly, why do you think that's a good thing?

I guess as an instrumental tactic for "I want to become a vegetarian but can't seem to stick to it", 'imagine your favourite pet, but they're ' might work. But it's surprising that without that initial impetus this worked.

As I've stated in the piece and elsewhere in the comments, I don't think of myself as making moral distinctions, but if you must phrase it in those terms think of me as a preference utilitarian, but you are right that unlike in moral theory proper the source of moral consideration lies solely in my own preferences, which matches more with aesthetic theory if you're inclined to think in that way (like with morality, I view aesthetics as trying to put too much essence in the world as a result of trying to understand it from an insufficiently broad frame).

I have no way to say that I think what I did is "good", as in I don't see my actions through the lens of morality so I cannot judge things "good" or "bad". I conceptualize this instead as more completely satisfying my preferences, although I'm open to a more parsimonious understanding.

It is probably true that I already believed in favor of being a vegetarian but wasn't acting on it, although I also wasn't trying to be one either, but that is likely relevant. My conversion story should not be taken as an argument for all people to become vegetarians: it's instead an argument for me to be a vegetarian so I can more get what I want.

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.

This is an interesting way to look at using induction, but I see it more as a willing reprogramming of your brain. In your case, you were able to simulate a case where eating chicken would disgust you (eating a pet) and that gave you impetus to stop eating chicken.

I am a big meat eater. I predict there is a 30-60% chance I would drastically reduce my meat eating if I was forced to run a slaughterhouse for my food, and see the suffering and kill the animals. Every time I wanted meat I'd need to take on the moral burden of killing an animal. If I may try my hand at some pop-historical analysis, I bet this is why past societies frequently held a reverence, often spiritual, with the killing of animals for food.

...And yet, I still eat lots of meat. Probably if someone took me on a tour of kids with malaria in Africa I'd donate more to those charities. Or if I was walked through a Russian sex trafficking brothel, I would support organizations to end those practices. Or if someone made a three hour movie on the tragedy of the homeless person who sleeps by my apartment, documenting their misfortune, I would go out and buy a coat and food and try to help them because it would unlock and develop emotions I don't currently have.

I sort of know if I went through these simulations it would change my outlook and behavior in life. These are also obviously topics I already am familiar with, but there are surely lots of topics I'm unfamiliar with that would change my view of the world. Of course I can't have all these experiences, and I'm not sure how I should try to adjust my behavior today on the expectations of how my behaviors would change if I were to have experiences that I'm not going to have, but plausibly could have.

Is it rational for me to eat less meat now, even though I enjoy it and don't feel guilty, because a plausible counter-factual me who had some experiences I don't have would tell me to? Or is it rational for me to eat meat because there is no counter-factual me who exists, and as it stands now I enjoy it and don't feel guilty?

Assuming for the sake of argument that a counterfactual me with a chicken pet would become emotionally attached to it and be unwilling to eat chickens, that still begs the question of whether the counterfactual me is acting rationally or not. Perhaps I'm just recognizing that a counterfactual me is vulnerable to having his thought processes hacked.

I could equally well say "a counterfactual me who was kidnapped at birth and raised by Christians would grow up to be a Christian. So I should be a Christian now." Or even "a counterfactual me who joined Scientology out of curiosity would be overcome by Scientology's conditioning and come to actually believe in Scientology, so I should believe in Scientology now."

We are all finite beings, so "rational" must be finite approximation of rational, so although there is a question about how far to apply systematic rationality to your thinking, that is itself not a question fully answerable by systematic rationality (although you could do a finite approximation of such an answer). Whether or not your thinking is rational here is not at stake so much as asking how much effort do you want to expend on coming up with an answer and what things you are willing to consider as evidence (counterfactual selves, for example) and how you will weigh them.

This is odd. I have kept some chickens. They do not have a rich internal life. Perhaps if you actually raised a chicken, you would not in fact personify it, but instead would see how simple its programming is, and not think it worthy of moral consideration.

After all, if stipulated willingness to get attached to a hypothetical pet is your guide to moral consideration, perhaps if I suggest getting you a bonsai tree you'll no longer use paper.

I mean, I agree that vegetarianism is, and should be, a largely aesthetic choice given our current options, if only at the meta-level of attempting to follow some kind of psychologically-unrealistic utilitarianism for aesthetic reasons. I just think your aesthetics are weird :P

I have kept some chickens. They do not have a rich internal life.

Erm, some people would disagree with that.

Nice review article!

I think one can accept all the direct factual claims of the paper while having a fairly different interpretation. I certainly agree with the author that chickens can watch someone put food somewhere out of sight, and then have a model of the world that involves a reward if they go towards the place the food went. And that they can be trained to do a few tasks via simple reinforcement learning, and have pretty good sensory processing. This is cognitive behavior much more impressive than that of the bonsai tree, which has much more rudimentary reinforcement learning and can only be trained to do tasks on longer timescales, and has no concept of object permanence at all. I just don't think it's very likely that chickens have introspection, deep understanding of the environment, the ability to make novel multi-step plans, or even particularly good episodic memory.

pigs strike a balance between the lower suffering, higher ecological impact of beef and the higher suffering, lower ecological impact of chicken.

This was my thinking for coming to the same conclusion. But I am not confident in it. Just because something minimaxes between two criteria doesn't mean that it minimizes overall expected harm.

I'm very interested in your comment about how you can switch between two moral systems with the guide of a meta-moral system, but you only give an example of a situation where the two moral systems agree, so it is your justification of which system to use that changes.
If I read that paragraph correctly, you can change between virtue ethics or utilitarianism based on what others around you will prefer. Now I'll ask you something to explore the meta-system more deeply: what if others will prefer that you eat meat? Will you eat meat or remain utilitarian? Or what about the trolley problem, where utilitarianism and virtue ethics give opposite answers?

No, it's more so that I'm thinking in a way that does not have a place for what we commonly understand as morality to "live". I have preferences, others have preferences, and what I might frame is the individual moral reasoning of a person is what happens when you flatten down their thinking to fit the assumption that there is some "correct" morality that is baked-in to the territory.

Whether or not I would eat meat because others prefer that I eat meat would depend on a lot on how they express that preference. If I lived in a society where I would be ostracized for not eating meat then I would likely eat meat because I prefer to be included in society for my own survival more than I care about the preferences of animals, but it's hard to say for sure without being specific because it comes down to the specific tradeoffs I would have to make. The point is more that my reasoning may incidentally look like preference utilitarianism or virtue theory when viewed through the lens of the assumptions morality imposes.

Forgive me for the rudeness of "DO THE RESEARCH FOR ME", but honestly, every time I read a similar post like this one, I NEVER see numbers. If you've ever heard of a far-away paradise or living hell, you might be amazed or scared at first, but one step later you wonder how good or bad it really is.

So in this case, how much meat is ACTUALLY eaten? Can we get numbers?

How much meat were you eating before deciding to take the toll, and how much did you enjoy it?

We have been vegan-ish in our household for a while now, but never really ate much meat before. It was very simple way to be less evil.

Probably an average amount for America, maybe 1-3 servings a day.


just as most human lives, no matter how much suffering they contain

Are you implying that the experience of a workaholic on subsistence wages is the maximum level of suffering achievable? If so, I strongly disagree. I can think of quite a few horrible conditions I would not trade it for, here's one: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

This is why I say "most" and not "all", since humans seem to be quite willing to accept conditions where their preferences are frustrated more often than they are satisfied, hence the measure of all possible humans whose lives are worth living seems greater than the measure of all possible humans whose lives are not worth living, as measured by the individual human's desire to live such a life versus not existing.

I find it interesting that you apply this argument to pigs as well. The view that most farm-raised pigs have lives worth living implies that you should eat as much pork as you want (or even more) since your purchases would result in more pigs being raised for food. If this applied to pigs even on factory farms, I'm not sure why you would assume the opposite about chickens.

Three answers. One, it's more important to me to signal virtue for reasons I laid out than directly act on the consequences of my preference calculus in order to maximize medium to long term gains (I can do more of what I want by getting others to eat vegetarian than I can by simply maximizing pork consumption and minimizing all other foods). Two, there's a lot of complex tradeoffs going on here that aren't fully explained because otherwise the simple outcome of this reasoning is cannibalism. Three, chickens, from what I can tell, would commit suicide by one means or another, and do when they are kept in similar conditions to what they often are but precautions like caging, beak cutting, and talon cutting are not taken.

I have a strong prior that someone who tells me that for principled reasons I should do X, but by those same principles he only needs to do Y, where Y is much more convenient to him than X is to me, is affected by cognitive biases and should be ignored. It's easy to overestimate the utility gain to the world from doing X and underestimate the loss to me specifically from doing X, when you don't have to do X yourself.

"You must follow vegetarianism, but I don't need to follow vegetarianism as strictly because I'm signalling" is an example of that. It is, of course, still logically possible, but that's not the way to bet.

This also applies to global warming opponents who can take plane flights because it helps them promote global warming activism, or buy carbon credits, while I can't take such plane flights and someone at my income level must make sacrifices that are far more personal than buying carbon credits. It also applies to effective altruists who think people should give X% of their income when at a financial stage that they themselves have not reached yet.

Sure, although I'm not telling anyone to do anything here, just laying out my own reasoning for my actions. I would prefer it if other people took some actions, but hardly think they should do those things, as in I don't believe there is some moral argument that compels them. They can make up their own minds, though I'd like to try to influence them.

To any extent I'm trying to influence anyone it's too, for now, share in displaying vegetarian virtue, which is what I am myself doing.


You've made an argument that most human lives are worth living, not that most human lives, no matter how much suffering they contain, are worth living. I suggest you remove the "no matter how much suffering they contain" part to clearly communicate your position.