While many people in the effective altruism movement are vegan, I'm not, and I wanted to write some about why. The short answer is what while I'm on board with the general idea of making sacrifices to help others I think veganism doesn't represent a very good tradeoff, and I think we should put our altruistic efforts elsewhere.
There are many reasons people decide to eat vegan food, from ethics to taste to health, and I'm just interested in the ethical perspective. As a consequentialist, the way I see this is, how would the world be different if I stopped eating animals and animal products?
One factor is that I wouldn't be buying animal products anymore, which would reduce the demand for animals, and correspondingly the amount supplied. Elasticity means that if I decrease by buying by one unit I expect production to fall by less than one unit, but I'm going to ignore that here to be on the safe side. Peter Hurford gives a very rough set of numbers for how many animals continuously living are required to support a standard American diet and gets:
- 1/8 of a cow
- 1/8 of a pig
- 3 chickens
- 3 fish
Now, I don't think animals matter as much as humans. I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer, but to be safe I'll assume they do. If animals do matter, I think they still matter substantially less than humans, so if we're going to compare our altruistic options we need a rough exchange rate between animal and human experience. Conditional on animals mattering, averting how many animal-years on a factory farm do I see as being about as good as giving a human another year of life?
- Pigs: about 100. Conditions for pigs are very bad, though I still think humans matter a lot more.
- Chickens: about 1,000. They probably matter much less than pigs.
- Cows: about 10,000. They probably matter about the same as pigs, but their conditions are far better.
- Fish: about 100,000. They matter much less than chickens.
Overall this has, to my own personal best guess, giving a person another year of life being more valuable than at least 230 Americans going vegan for a year.
The last time I wrote about this I used $100 as how much it costs to give someone an extra year of life through a donation to GiveWell's top charities, and while I haven't looked into it again that still seems about right. I think it's likely that you can do much better than this through donations aimed at reducing the risk of human extinction, but is a good figure for comparison. This means I'd rather see someone donate $43 to GiveWell's top charities than see 100 people go vegan for a year.
Since I get much more than $0.43 of enjoyment out of a year's worth of eating animal products, veganism looks like a really bad altruistic tradeoff to me.
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I agree that veganism is a really bad altruistic tradeoff. However, it seems to me that it is importantly different from the other examples you mention. (Ask for your drink without a straw. Unplug your microwave when not in use. Bring a water bottle to events. Stop using air conditioning. Choose products that minimize packaging.)
Maybe this is the difference: With veganism, if everyone was vegan, the problem would be solved. So if you are vegan you are doing your part, and moreover spreading the gospel of veganism is a decent strategy for solving the problem. But with climate change, if everyone drinks without straws, unplugs their microwaves, etc., the problem will 99.999% still remain. So there's something inherently silly about those behaviors compared to veganism.
To generalize, while the problem of animal abuse would go away, the problem of animal suffering wouldn't. Likewise, unplugging your microwave would solve the problem of microwaves using too much energy, but wouldn't solve the problem of efficient energy capture, or climate change.
This feels disanalogous to me in that climate change is something that happens through the aggregated effects of everyone, so adding or removing the energy consumption of a single human is too small of an impact to have an effect on the total outcome. Animal suffering is different in that, while it is true that the whole of animal suffering (or even the whole of factory farming) will not be solved, the actions of individual humans will still have effects on individual animals:
This was going to be my original response actually, but then I thought: You don't actually prevent specific suffering-filled lives from happening by being vegan, probably. Probably your effect is nothing at all, but there's a chance that your reduced consumption will make the crucial difference between a factory farm deciding to produce X chickens or X+10,000 chickens next year. Similarly, with global warming probably your effect is nothing at all, but there's a chance that your microwave-unplugging will be save the crucial amount of carbon that protects one refugee somewhere from dying of heat stroke or something fifty years from now. Moreover not using plastic straws also has a chance of saving specific lives, e.g. your straw might be picked out of a dump by a bird and then ingested by a sea creature or something.
I accept this counterargument, but it doesn't seem compelling to me for some reason. Maybe the reason is that animal abuse seems like a big part of the overall moral problem, perhaps even the biggest part, whereas the problem of microwaves using too much energy is obviously a trivial component not just of the overall moral situation but even of more specific moral problems like efficient energy capture.
I think your argument can be strengthened by multiplying all the animal-year-values by 1000 - this would yield a value of veganism of 430 $/year, which is still less than what eating meat would be worth to a typical LW user, and yields values for the worth of animals that are probably higher than what most vegans would claim.
This compares "giving a year of life" to preventing suffering. It's unclear to me whether you're someone who cares unusually little about animals, or whether you're someone who cares unusually much about "giving years of life to self-aware beings that form life plans." Many animal advocates (esp. ones that follow Singer's philosophy) would agree that there's an important difference between human lives and animal lives. But not that there's an important difference about human suffering versus animal suffering.
I'm "someone who cares unusually little about animals" compared to most vegans, but I'm not sure if I am compared to the general population?
Given the rate of veganism, I'm not sure "unusual" would apply to jkaufman in either case.
This is saying something different from "I'm not vegan."
I'm not vegan myself either (anymore), but I would care a lot about the impact of 100 people going vegan, and I could imagine so would a lot of non-rationalist meat eaters. Maybe I'm not factoring in how counterintuitive it is how few entire animals are actually eaten by someone, and how effective Givewell charities are by comparison. But on the face of it, this statement feels quite unusual to me.
Edit: I should really have thought about the actual numbers rather than the confounder with money donated to an effective charity. So, according to the post, the comparison is 1 healthy human life year for the following:
I think it's defensible to call this "unusual" but I agree there are many people who would give way higher animal numbers still.
Maybe your imagination accurately reflects reality or maybe not, but it's certainly not discongruent with enough people having the viewpoint(s) that make jkaufman's stance not-unusual.
The average person's revealed preferences seem to assign close to zero weight to animal suffering.
On the other hand, we could make the argument that we should compare jkaufman's position to what I would assume to be the tiny minority of people who have given any substantial amount of thought to veganism and animal suffering.
In that case, I would agree that it is likely that he is unusual.
The adversarial collaboration talks a bit about this.
What happens after you factor in the environmental impact? Amount of water used, pollution, etc
The total carbon footprint of the typical American diet is... one set of numbers says 5-15 tons per household, another says 6 tons per person, of CO2-equivalent emissions. And carbon offsets are sold from 10 cents per ton to $40 per ton, with an average of $3.30. (I'm betting the cheapest ones are likely fake, but I don't think all of the offsets are fake.)
So your entire diet would cost somewhere between 50 cents and $600 per year (with a point estimate of $20, but dominated in expectation by the right tail), and going vegan would maybe save a majority of that. I don't expect the other environmental damage to be as costly as the carbon emissions, but of course I could be wrong.
However, if (as I do) you have more uncertainty over animal suffering- and thus a higher average expected value- cutting out meat entirely seems like it's worth a significant but not overwhelming dollar equivalent, measured in hundreds or in thousands of dollars each year.
And that's enough for me to at least 80-20 it, cutting out any meat that I was just eating by habit (instead of because my body feels it needs it or because it's a particularly delicious meal).
Here's another attempt at CO2e: I see 2.5 tCO2e for a typical diet and 1.5 tCO2e for a vegan diet  and a typical American household carbon footprint is ~48 tCO2e . So going vegan shrinks your footprint by about 2%. If you told me I needed to shrink my footprint by 2% I can think of lots of things I'd much rather give up than eating animal products.
But it also doesn't have to mean giving things up: electricity is something like 10% of my footprint, and I could pay to convert some of that to solar, which wouldn't be that expensive.
I view the value of veganism for effective altruists as a way to purchase moral consistency. If you take animal suffering very seriously but aren't vegan, it can be a bit emotionally uneasy unless you have a strong ability to dissociate your choices. There are costs to purchasing moral consistency of course, but no more than many other luxuries.
This way of approaching veganism mirrors a countersignaling framework:
Tobias Leenaert has used the word post-vegan to describe the third stage, and I quite like the label myself.
I agree with this if you're comparing complete veganism to something like "reducing one's former consumption of animal products to <10%." But I'd be interested in discussion of the <10% thing. I don't quite like the framing of "purchasing consistency" for that because it doesn't seem like one gets a lot of moral fuzzies from being "sort of almost close to vegan." And many of the arguments against veganism also apply against the <10% thing. And yet, it feels quite problematic to me to think that I don't want to be the type of person who does the <10% thing. What's that driven by? (Not asking you to reply; I'm just thinking out loud.)
Very surprised by your ratios here.
cf. the "Is eating meat a net harm?" adversarial collaboration on Slate Star Codex. Look at the surveys they ran as a benchmark.
Thanks. I found the figures on the quantity of animals needed to supply each person v interesting (I'd never seen them expressed like that before). This helps my personal (only half thought-through) position, which is:
Current factory farming of poultry is bad (if they're sentient), and maybe pigs, but well-farmed cattle and sheep seem to have a pretty fair deal. We get to eat them (and/or consume their milk/hide/wool), in return for them getting food, shelter, and veterinary treatment rather than suffering disease, predation, and starvation in the wild.
So if we can ensure (e.g. by future regulation) that all bred animals are similarly well treated, then it's a fair deal for them. They get to live at a reasonable standard, better than in the wild, rather than not exist. And for now, those concerned about it can limit ourselves to eating well-farmed beef & lamb.
To which a response I've heard is, "Oh but we can't possibly farm all the animals people would want to eat in such good conditions - there isn't space (or it would be too expensive), particularly once people in developing countries eat Western levels of meat. So become vegan instead."
Your figures suggest there would be space. (Or worst case, we could eat less; e.g. if high farming standards were regulated, then the supply would be somewhat restricted and people would have to pay more or eat less.)
Except that animals are bred into existence and not rescued from “the wild”
I think people typically say "better than in the wild" based on a presumption that wild animals don't (net) suffer.
(Which I don't think is known either way)
Last March there was a Slate Star Codex essay you might be interested in [link] where Scott tried to compare the moral weight of various animals to the number of cortical neurons each species has on average. Those numbers don't account for suffering under farm conditions or environmental impact, but they might help refine your intuitions.