Why I'm Not Vegan

post by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-09T13:00:00.683Z · score: 10 (47 votes) · EA · GW · 60 comments

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 continuously living animals are required to support a standard American diet and gets:

For example, a typical American consumes about a quarter of a pig per year, and these pigs live about six months, so that's 1/8 of a pig on an ongoing basis. I haven't checked his numbers in detail, but there are 78M pigs and 327M people in the US, so one pig for every four people, and once you consider that we export a lot of pork this seems in the right range.

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?

These are very rough, and this is the main place where I think I differ from most ethical vegans: I think humans matter much more than these animals. Your own views may also be different!

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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comment by abrahamrowe · 2020-04-09T14:40:05.481Z · score: 47 (40 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I downvoted this, and would feel strange not talking about why:

I think there are lots of good reasons, moral or otherwise, to not be vegan - maybe you can't afford vegan food, or otherwise cannot access it. Maybe you've never heard of veganism. Maybe there are good reasons to think that the animal products you're eating aren't causing additional harm. Maybe you just like animal products a lot, and want to eat some, even though you know it is bad.

But I don't think this argument is a particularly good one, and doesn't engage with questions of animal ethics well:

1. "I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer" - this strikes me (for birds and mammals at least) as a statement in direct conflict with a large body of scientific evidence, and to some extent, consensus views among neuroscientists (e.g. the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_consciousness#Cambridge_Declaration_on_Consciousness). Though to be fair, you are assuming they do feel pain in this post.

2. Your weights for animals lives seem fairly arbitrary. I agree that if those were good weights to use, maybe the moral trade-offs would be justified, but if you're just saying, with little basis, that a pig has 1/100 human moral worth, I don't know how to evaluate it. It isn't an argument. It's just an arbitrary discount to make your actions feel justified from a utilitarian standpoint.

I also think these moral worth statements need more clarification - do you mean that while I (a human) feel things on the scale of -1000 to 1000, a pig only feels things on the scale of -10 to 10? Or do you mean a pig is somehow worth less intrinsically, even though it feels similar amounts of pain as me? The first statement I am skeptical of because of a lack of evidence for it, and the second seems just unjustifiably biased against pigs for no particular reason.


I generally think factory farms are pretty bad, and maybe as bad as torture. Removing cows from the equation, eating animal products requires 6.125 beings to be tortured per year per American (by the numbers you shared). I personally don't think that is a worthwhile thing to cause. Randomly assigning small moral weights to those animals to feel justified seems unscientific and odd.

I think it seems fairly clear that there is a strong case to be made, if you're someone who has the means and access to vegan food and are a utilitarian of various sorts, to eat at least a mostly vegan diet. No one has to be perfectly moral all the time, and I think it's probably okay (on average) to often not be perfectly moral. But presenting arbitrarily assigned discounts on lives until your actions are morally justified is a weak justification.

comment by Maxdalton · 2020-04-10T06:35:52.738Z · score: 19 (14 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

"I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer" - this strikes me (for birds and mammals at least) as a statement in direct conflict with a large body of scientific evidence, and to some extent, consensus views among neuroscientists (e.g. the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_consciousness#Cambridge_Declaration_on_Consciousness).

I think that the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness is weak evidence for the claim that this is a "consensus view among neuroscientists".

From Luke Muehlhauser's 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood:

1. The document reads more like a political document than a scientific document. (See e.g. this commentary.)

2. As far as I can tell, the declaration was signed by a small number of people, perhaps about 15 people, and thus hardly demonstrates a “scientific consensus.”

3. Several of the signers of the declaration have since written scientific papers that seem to treat cortex-required views as a live possibility, e.g. Koch et al. (2016) and Laureys et al. (2015), p. 427.

comment by abrahamrowe · 2020-04-10T13:17:12.945Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

While you're right that the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was signed by few people, they were mostly very prominent and influential researchers, which was the point of the thing. But yeah, it is weak evidence on its own, I agree.

I don't know of specific survey data, but based on both the declaration and its continued influence, and the wide variety of opinions, literature reviews, etc supporting the position, my impression is that there is somewhat of a consensus, though there are occasional outliers. I believe my "to some extent, consensus" accurately captures the state of the field. Though in either case it is beside the point since Jeff assumed them to be sentient for the post. Thanks for sharing! :)

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T16:21:31.387Z · score: 16 (15 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Abraham! Thanks for pointing out that it would be helpful to clarify what is meant by the tradeoff values.

I differ on this point:

if you're just saying, with little basis, that a pig has 1/100 human moral worth, I don't know how to evaluate it. It isn't an argument. It's just an arbitrary discount to make your actions feel justified from a utilitarian standpoint.

I think we should give Jeff the benefit of the doubt here. I don't think his estimates are arbitrary. I think they are honest reflections of the conclusions he has come to given his experience and his understanding of the evidence.

It would be nice to hear more about Jeff's rationale. But in terms of community norms, I'd like to keep space open for people who want to present novel arguments without having to exhaustively justify every premise.

comment by abrahamrowe · 2020-04-09T16:46:49.880Z · score: 18 (12 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that's fair - I was not charitable in my original comment RE whether or not there is a rationale behind those estimates, when perhaps I ought to assume there is one. But I guess part of my point is that because this argument entirely hinges on a rationale, not providing it just makes this seem very sketchy.

While I don't think human experiences and animal experiences are comparable in this direct a way, as an illustration imagine me making a post that said, "I think humans in other countries are worth 1/10 of those in my own country, therefore it seems like more of a priority to help those in my own country", and providing no reasoning or clarification for that discount. You would be justified in being very skeptical of the argument I was making, and to view my argument as low quality, even though there might be a variety of other good reasons to prioritize helping those in my own country. I don't think that kind of statement is high enough quality on its own to be entertained or to support an argument. But at its core, that's the argument in this post. I'd be interested in talking about the reasons behind those discounts, but without them, there just isn't even a way to engage with this argument that I think is productive.

For the record, I generally don't think it is a major wrong to not be vegan, and wouldn't downvote / be this critical of someone voicing something along the lines of "I really like how meat tastes, so am not vegan," etc. I am more critical here because it is an attempt to make a moral justification of not eating a vegan diet, and I think that argument not only fails, but also doesn't attempt to defend or explain core premises and assumptions, especially when aspects of those premises seem contrary to some degree of scientific evidence / consensus, which strike me to broadly be taken seriously as part of the community norms.

That being said, I think it's fully possible there are good justifications for having such large discounts on the moral worth of animals, and those discounts are worth discussing. But that was glossed over here, which is why I am responding more critically.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-04-22T19:01:59.772Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do the weights really affect the argument? I think Jeff is saying that being omnivorous results in ~6 additional animals alive at any given point. If an animal's existence on a farm is as bad as one human in the developing world is good (a pretty non-speciesist weighting), then it's $600 to go vegan.

$600 is admittedly much more than $0.43, but my guess is that Jeff still would rather donate the $600.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-04-09T15:55:50.734Z · score: 12 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted for sharing your reason for downvoting. I wish people did this more often!

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-10T17:13:45.031Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My post describes a model for thinking about when it makes sense to be vegan, and how I apply it in my case. My specific numbers are much less useful to other people, and I'm not claiming that I've found the one true best estimate. Ways the post can be useful include (a) discussion over whether this is a good model to be using and (b) discussion over how people think about these sort of relative numbers.

I included the "I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer" out of transparency. ( https://www.facebook.com/jefftk/posts/10100153860544072?comment_id=10100153864306532 ) The post doesn't depend on it at all, and everything is conditional on animals mattering.

You're right that the post doesn't argue for my specific numbers on comparing animals and humans: they're inputs to the model. On the other hand, I do think that if we surveyed the general population on how they would make tradeoffs between human life and animal suffering these would be within the typical range, and these aren't numbers I've chosen to get a specific outcome.

I also think these moral worth statements need more clarification

I phrased these as "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?" As in, if you gave me a choice between the two, which do I prefer. This seems pretty carefully specified to me, and clear enough that someone else could give their own numbers and we could figure out where our largest differences are?

eating animal products requires 6.125 beings to be tortured per year per American. I personally don't think that is a worthwhile thing to cause.

This kind of argument has issues with demandingness. Here's a parallel argument: renting a 1br apartment for yourself instead of splitting a 2br with someone kills ~6 people a year because you could be donating the difference. (Figuring a 1br costs $2k/m and a 2br costs $3k/m. This gives a delta of $11k, and GiveWell gives a best guess of ~$1700 for "Cost per outcome as good as averting the death of an individual under 5 — AMF"). Is that a worthwhile thing to cause?

In general, I think the model EAs should be using for thinking about giving things up is to figure out how much sacrifice we're willing to make, and then figure out for that level of sacrifice what options do the most good. Simply saying "X has harm and so we should not do it" turns into "if there's anything that you don't absolutely need, or anything you consume where there's a slightly less harmful version, you must stop".

comment by abrahamrowe · 2020-04-10T19:28:58.265Z · score: 9 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post, and think I unintentionally came across harshly. I think you and I likely disagree on how much to weight the moral worth of animals, and what that entails about what we ought to do. But my discomfort with this post is (I hope, though of course I have subconscious biases) is specifically with the non-clarified statements about comparative moral worth between humans and other species. I made my comment to clarify that the reason I voted this down is that I think it is a very bad community standard to blanket accept statements of the sort "I think that these folk X are worth less than these other folk Y" (not a direct quote from you obviously) without stating precisely why one believes that or justifying that claim. That genuinely feels like a dangerous precedent to have, and without context, ought to be viewed with a lot of skepticism. Likewise, if I made an argument where I assumed but did not defend the claim that people different than me are worth 1/10th people like me, you likely ought to downvote it, regardless of the value of the model I might be presenting for thinking about an issue.

One small side note - I feel confused about why the surveys of how the general public view animals are being cited as evidence in favor of casual estimations of animals' moral worth in these discussions. Most members of the public, myself included, aren't experts in either moral philosophy nor animal sentience. And, we also know that most members of the public don't view veganism as worthwhile to do. Using this data as evidence that animals have less moral worth strikes me as doing something analogous to saying "most people who care more about their families than others, when surveyed, seem to believe that people outside their families are worth less morally. On those grounds, I ought to think that people outside my family are worth less morally". This kind of survey provides information on what people think about animals, but in no way is evidence of the moral status of animals. But, this might be the moral realist in me, and/or an inclination toward believing that moral value is something individuals have, and not something assigned to them by others :).

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-20T02:22:50.122Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I feel confused about why the surveys of how the general public view animals are being cited as evidence in favor of casual estimations of animals' moral worth in these discussions

Let's say I'm trying to convince someone that they shouldn't donate to animal charities or malaria net distribution, but instead they should be trying to prevent existential risk. I bring up how many people there could potentially be in the future ("astronomical stakes") as a reason for why they should care a lot about those people getting a chance to exist. If they have a strong intuition that people in the far future don't matter, though, this isn't going to be very persuasive. I can try to convince them that they should care, drawing on other intuitions that they do have, but it's likely that existential risk just isn't a high priority by their values. Them saying they think there's only a 0.1% chance or whatever that people 1000 years from now matter is useful for us getting on the same page about their beliefs, and I think we should have a culture of sharing this kind of thing.

On some questions you can get strong evidence, and intuitions stop mattering. If I thought we shouldn't try to convince people to go vegan because diet is strongly cultural and trying to change people's diet is hopeless, we could run a controlled trial and get a good estimate for how much power we really do have to influence people's diet. On other questions, though, it's much harder to get evidence, and that's where I would place the moral worth of animals and people in the far future. In these cases you can still make progress by your values, but people are less likely to agree with each other about what those values should be.

(I'm still very curious what you think of my demandingness objection to your argument above)

comment by Henry_Stanley · 2020-04-10T22:15:13.576Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I included the "I think there's a very large chance they don't matter at all, and that there's just no one inside to suffer" out of transparency. The post doesn't depend on it at all

I don't see how that can be true. Surely the weightings you give would be radically different if you thought there was "someone inside to suffer"?

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-11T02:39:47.662Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The post doesn't depend on it, because the post is all conditional on animals mattering a nonzero amount ("to be safe I'll assume they do [matter]").

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-10T22:55:38.275Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If he thinks there's no one inside to suffer, then it's worth sacrificing an infinite number of chickens for the convenience of one person.

These numbers are presumably based on the idea that chickens are their own, independent, semi-conscious beings.

comment by NunoSempere · 2020-04-09T18:10:56.922Z · score: 1 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

So I think that once you accept a particular framing or ontology, or cluster of beliefs, vegetarianism starts to begin souding pretty obvious. One such cluster might be:

  • Moral realism: There is an objective and scientific answer to how much a pig's life is worth compared to a human. Ethics is at its best an investigation into the nature of reality, from which moral obligations follow.
  • Kant is cool. The answer to "why should I do good?" is "because I must".
  • Peter Singer ideas: Pain and suffering are extremely important. Negative utilitarianism. Sentience over sapience. Speciesim as being wrong.
  • Realizing that, deep down, care about animals a great amount.
  • ...

And you seem to be arguing from a framing similar to the above. However, that framing is not obvious, and one could adopt some other cluster of beliefs, such as:

  • Moral relativism: There isn't an objective and scientific answer to many moral questions. Many ethical questions or concepts are not well defined, and are best resolved by introspecting on your preferences. Morality is at its best is a coordination game played in good faith.
  • Gendlin is cool. The answer to "why do I strive to do good?" is "because I want", or "because I choose to".
  • Enlightenment humanism: Human flourishing. Sapience over sentience. Preference utilitarianism among humans.
  • Realizing that, deep down, you care about animals a small amount.
  • ...

And when arguing with someone which has beliefs near the second cluster, I don't think that assuming that beliefs in the first cluster are obviously right is a great tactical move (I'm ignoring audience effects). In fact, when I used to not be vegetarian, I found that kind of move to be extremely annoying, and to some extent I still do ("that guy is saying that things which took me years to understand and/or come to share, and which in some cases are still not clear to me, are obviously true?").

Instead, may I suggest a moral trade as a tactical move? (see: Morality at its best is a coordination game played in good faith)

  • You (@abrahamrowe) donate $4.3 (a factor of x10 because of your deep magnanimity) to @Jeff_Kaufman's best human existential risk reduction charity (easily another factor of x10 according to long-termist assumptions)
  • Jeff_Kaufman tries being vegetarian for a year (or changes his numbers above).

Considering this type of moral trade is possible because the original poster quantified his preferences to the best of his ability. This should be highly lauded, and gets a strong upvote from me.

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-18T01:03:32.072Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I think moral trades are interesting, I don't know why you would expect me to see $4.30 going to an existential risk charity to be enough for it to be worth me going vegetarian for a year over? I'd much rather donate $4.30 myself and not change my diet.

I think you're conflating "Jeff sees $0.43/y to a good charity as being clearly better than averting the animal suffering due to omnivorous eating" and "Jeff only selfishly values eating animal products at $0.43/y"?

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-18T12:57:46.102Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If anyone's genuinely interested in this, I'll switch my diet from eating organic meat ~5x a week to completely vegan in exchange for a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. £10 per week.

(I think that's a bad deal for everyone except AMF - there are way better things you can invest in if you care about animals welfare - but I would genuinely do it!)

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-19T00:20:52.290Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that the direct effect on animals seems pretty low for the cost compared to EAA charities. I think most of the value would be from getting you to go vegan for a few months or however long it takes for the diet to feel easy/automatic for you, for the chance that you might stick with it, reduce your consumption more or increase your concern for animals in the long term. I think I remember you saying somewhere you've been vegetarian before (correct me if I'm wrong), so I'm not sure an experiment with veganism would make much difference in the long-term.

Also, there are EAs who are both already inclined to donate to AMF and concerned about animal welfare, so you might want to specify counterfactual donations. :)

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-19T09:43:18.136Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I meant counterfactual donations, and yes I've spent a couple months vegetarian before. Good points both! :)

comment by abrahamrowe · 2020-04-09T18:18:44.190Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that I was assuming a certain moral framework in my post - I've updated it to refer explicitly to utilitarianism of some kind, since that's a fairly common view in EA.

Thanks for the moral trade idea!

comment by AslanP · 2020-04-10T09:41:12.997Z · score: 37 (22 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Putting aside any debate over the relative values you've assigned here, I think you might be making a error by the way that you try to translate relative moral harms into a dollar value, using the cost of extending a person's life through donation to GiveWell's charities.

To give an absurd example, the 'harm' caused if I were to punch a stranger in the face (assuming that I hurt them, but don't otherwise cause any permanent damage) is a fraction of the harm caused if I were to take a year off that person's life (which you have said can be valued at $100). Let's say it's at most 1/10th as bad as to punch someone in the face than to prematurely end their life.

However, even if I were to get more than $10 of enjoyment out of punching that person, I don't think it's right that I'm morally permitted to do so.

One reason is that although, at the margin, the cheapest available method for extending human lives by a year is $100, I don't think that necessarily reflects the true value of a year of human life for these purposes. The price is likely to be a product of market inefficiencies (noting, for example, that in the developed world, people regularly spending many times that amount in order to extend life by a year). Also, I would certainly pay more than $100 to extend my life by year, and no doubt so would the person who is being punched. It just happens that GiveWell have identified some unusually efficient programs for extending human life. Those programs do not reflect the market price, at equilibrium, for a year of human life.

I'd like to put more thought into this, but I'm presently convinced you're making a mistake with this move.

Secondly, I think that it's wrong to come to the conclusion that something is not a 'serious' moral wrong, just because the harm caused is a fraction of the harm caused by ending a human life. Perhaps ending a human life prematurely is very high on the moral spectrum, such that something 1/100th as bad, as still quite a bad thing from a moral and utilitarian perspective.

Anyway, it's a good debate to be having, even if I don't reach the same conclusions you do.

(P.S. First post on EA forums, so apologies if I'm getting any etiquitte wrong or rehashing ideas that have previously been debated and resolved).

comment by shaybenmoshe · 2020-04-11T07:51:50.078Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I completely agree, and I too was troubled by this analysis. For me, the bottom line is:
The fact that something is of little-to-no cost, does not mean that its moral value is also little.

Furthermore, in cases like reducing animal suffering, one can both avoid being harmful himself (i.e. become vegan) AND donate to relevant charities, rather than OR.

comment by markus_over · 2020-04-12T11:04:32.066Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a very interesting point which I hadn't thought of before. To add to it, let's assume the "how much animals matter" values from the original post were chosen in a way more favorable to animals such that veganism seems to make economic moral sense, so we come to the conclusion "it's probably an effective intervention for an EA to go vegan".

Now assume some charity finds a super-effective intervention that cuts the cost of saving a human life to 10% its previous best value. Following the original argument, that would basically mean at this point going vegan is not recommended anymore because it may now be much less effective than the one thing we're semi-arbitrarily comparing it to.

It seems rather counter-intuitive that thousands of hypothetical rational EAs would now start eating meat again, simply because a charity found a cheaper way to save humans.

But then again, I can't get rid of the feeling that this whole counter-argument too is arbitrary and constructed, and that it wouldn't convince me if I were of the opposite opinion, but rather seem like a kind of logic puzzle where you have to find the error of thought. Maybe despite being counter-intuitive, the absurd sounding conclusion would still be the correct one in some sense.

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-20T02:27:40.762Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
However, even if I were to get more than $10 of enjoyment out of punching that person, I don't think it's right that I'm morally permitted to do so.

I don't think you would be morally permitted to either, because I think https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/28/contra-askell-on-moral-offsets/ is right and you can offset axiology, but not morality.

comment by Ben_West · 2020-04-22T19:22:30.210Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have an intuition that this is more of the disagreement between you and vegans (as opposed to having different moral weights). My guess is that one could literally prevent three chicken-years for less than $500/year?[1] And also that some vegans' personal happiness is more affected by not eating chickens than donating $500.

If that's true, then the reason vegans are vegan instead of donating is because they view it as "morality" as opposed to "axiology".

This accords with my intuition: having someone tell me they care about nonhuman animals while eating a chicken sandwich rubs me in a way that having someone tell me they care about the developing world while wearing $100 shoes does not.


  1. As one heuristic: Beyond meat is $4.59 for 9 ounces. So it would cost $424 to replace all 52.9 pounds Peter says the average American eats in a year. ↩︎

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-09T18:29:30.114Z · score: 31 (14 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
Conditional on animals mattering, how many animal-years on a factory farm do I see as being about as good as giving a human another year of life?

I think comparing animal suffering to extra human life is easily subject to bias if you do it directly. I think it would be better to compare nonhuman animal suffering and human suffering first, and then human suffering and human life. How miserable are farmed chickens compared to the human misery caused by chronic depression or chronic pain, and how do you compare saving a year of good human life to curing chronic depression or pain in humans?

I actually think chickens are among the worst off animals in existence, similar to the worst off humans. Many are in chronic pain from being lame, breathing toxic air, stressed from high stocking densities and deprived of natural behaviours. About 0.4 chickens suffer to death per American per year (not adjusted for elasticities).

In a study of broiler (meat) chickens from the UK:

At a mean age of 40 days, over 27.6% of birds in our study showed poor locomotion and 3.3% were almost unable to walk.

Between food laced with painkillers and food without, lame chickens are more likely than healthy chickens to choose the one with painkiller.[1] Lame chickens also walk twice as fast as they would otherwise if given painkillers, but still slower than healthy chickens.[2]

See Charity Entrepreneurship's report on welfare conditions [EA · GW].

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.

I always find this kind of comparison weird. This is primarily the instrumental value of your enjoyment, right? Otherwise, you should compare your going vegan directly to the suffering of animals by not going vegan, which on a standard diet, should include about 0.3 chickens suffering to death per year (adjusting for elasticity) and whatever number of factory farmed animals. I wouldn't torture a chicken to death every 3 years and keep several more in factory farming conditions for the inherent value of my personal enjoyment if I thought I enjoyed it as much as the average person does from eating meat for 3 years and there were no risks. (I don't think you would, either.)

comment by Thomas Kwa (tkwa) · 2020-04-09T23:18:17.418Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

> This is primarily the instrumental value of your enjoyment, right? Otherwise, you should compare your going vegan directly to the suffering of animals by not going vegan

I think you're drawing the line in an unfair place between instrumental and inherent value. Most EAs I know are not so morally demanding on themselves as to have no self-interest. If someone is well-off in a non-EA job and donates 40% of their income to GiveWell or x-risk charities, they're a fairly dedicated EA. But donating "only" 40% still implies a >10:1 income disparity between oneself and the global poor, and thus that one values one's own enjoyment >50x more than that of an arbitrary human. I think the norm of being less than maximally demanding is beneficial to the EA community and protects against unproductive asceticism. So self-interest that looks inherent can actually be instrumental.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-10T03:11:16.562Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think the norm of being less than maximally demanding is beneficial to the EA community and protects against unproductive asceticism.

I agree with this.

I don't think the majority of EAs value our own "enjoyment >50x more than that of an arbitrary human" after reflection. I think most of us actually have impartial views, but don't think it would be sustainable/productive or can't find the willpower or motivation to be so ascetic.

So self-interest that looks inherent can actually be instrumental.

For discussions among engaged EAs, I think we should be clear about what's going on here. Maybe for the donation pledges, we can use this kind of phrasing, although we wouldn't be representing our own views accurately. There's a lot of discussion about mental health, burnout and taking care of yourself in the EA community which serves this purpose for us.

Also, the same kind of argument could be used for being mean to people (anonymously) if you enjoyed it, because their harm seems insignificant compared to saving a year of human life, and you'd be willing to pay a bit to be mean every now and then.

You might respond that you can find things you'd enjoy just as much as being mean, and you should do those instead. I feel the same about animal products vs vegan meals. They don't have to be similar substitutes, and this is likely to disappoint many. I might be unusually indifferent between foods, though, which has made being vegan pretty easy for me, and Jeff eats a lot of vegan food, and still thinks the difference is important enough.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-09T19:32:39.351Z · score: 29 (15 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you compare the inherent value of your enjoyment of animal products to the suffering of animals, here's a thought experiment (for a meal at a restaurant):

You can choose between two scenarios:
(A) You spend 30 minutes eating a delicious non-vegan meal. When the check comes, you pay $10 and spend 39.35 hours as a farmed animal before getting on with your human life.
(B) You spend 30 minutes eating a delicious vegan meal. When the check comes, you pay $10 and go home.
comment by Khorton · 2020-04-09T22:18:49.836Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't work for me as a thought experiment. It sounds to me like losing 40 hours of my life, which is horrifying, regardless of the "animal" part. If you said "you have a steak and then go into a coma for 40 hours" or "spend 40 hours as a pine cone" I would be horrified as well - or at least confused!

Edit: it also makes you sound like you'll be a human in a cow's body (similar to the pine cone example), which again doesn't seem accurate to an actual cow's experience!

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-09T23:24:59.079Z · score: 24 (15 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd take it as an extra 40 hours living as a farmed animal each time. Stop time in your human consciousness, live as a farmed animal for 40 hours, and then return to your human consciousness and start time again.

If you were 100% confident these animals aren't conscious, you wouldn't notice those 40 hours. If you thought they were conscious with probability p, you'd only notice the time as a farmed animal with probability p.

comment by David_Moss · 2020-04-10T18:08:50.049Z · score: 23 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

We actually have some survey data on how the broader non-EA population thinks about moral tradeoffs between humans and non-human animals.

SlateStarCodex reported the results of a survey we (at Rethink Priorities) ran attempting to replicate a survey he and another commenter ran, asking people what number of animals of different species are of the same moral value as one adult human i.e. higher numbers means animals have lower value. Our writeup, which goes into a lot more detail about the interpretation and limitations of this data is forthcoming.

If you look at the column for 'Rethink Priorities (inclusive)' (which I think is the most relevant), you'll see the median values given were:

  • Pigs: 75
  • Chickens: 1000
  • Cows: 75

Your numbers mostly ascribe lower value to non-human animals than the median in our sample (an online US-only sample from Prolific). Of course, the question we asked was for a pure comparison of moral value, not adjusted for how how bad the conditions are that each species face in factory farms. But I would have thought that this should mean that the answers given to your question would be lower rather than higher. It would be interesting to know roughly what your pure moral value tradeoffs would be, if you have them.

comment by ishaan · 2020-04-10T17:40:04.006Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I get much more than $0.43 of enjoyment out of a year's worth of eating animal products

I think we would likely not justify a moral offset for harming humans at (by the numbers you posted) $100/year or eating children at $20/pound (100*15 years / 75 pounds). This isn't due to sentimentality, deontology, taboo, or biting the bullet - I think a committed consequentialist, one grounded in practicality, would agree that no good consequences would likely come from allowing that sort of thing, and I think that this probably logically applies to meat.

I think overall it's better to look first at the direct harm vs direct benefit, and how much you weigh the changes to your own experience against the suffering caused. The offset aspect is not unimportant, but I think it's a bit misleading when not applied evenly in the other direction.

I am sympathetic to morally weighing different animals orders of magnitude differently. We have to do that in order to decide how to prioritize between different interventions.

That said, I don't think human moral instincts for these sorts of cross-species trolley problems are well equipped for numbers bigger than 3-5. Your moral instincts can (I would say, accurately) inform you that you would rather avert harm to a person than to 5 chickens, but when you get into the 1000s you're pretty firmly in torture vs dust specks [LW · GW] territory and should not necessarily just trust your instincts. That doesn't mean orders of magnitude differences are wrong, but it does mean they're potentially subject to a lot of bias and inconsistency if not accompanied by some methodology.

comment by Henry_Stanley · 2020-04-10T22:29:01.103Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Your claim that 1 year of human life is equivalent to 1,000 years of factory farming for chickens (or 100,000 years for fish) seems extraordinary. You don't provide a justification for this in the piece, despite the whole argument hinging on this number - do you have one?

(I also downvoted the post - I think it's lazily argued and doesn't add much to the debate. As abrahamrowe says, you could assign an arbitrary weight to anything, like a year of life for a person in the developing world being 'worth' 1/100th of a year of life for a Westerner, and call it done.)

comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2020-04-11T15:38:38.110Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Pretty grim thought experiment - but I wonder: what amount of living as a chicken, or pig, on a factory farm would people trade for a year of extra healthy (human) life?

Assume that you would have the consciousness of the chicken or pig during the experience (memories of your previous life would be limited to the extent to what a chicken or pig could comprehend), and that you would have some kind of memory of the experience after (although these would be zero if chickens and pigs aren't sentient). Also assume that you wouldn't lose any time in your real life (say it was run as a very fast simulation, but you subjectively still experienced the time you specified).

Edit: there's another thought experiment along the same lines in MichaelStJules' comment here [EA(p) · GW(p)].

comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2020-04-11T15:43:03.800Z · score: 18 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm thinking that for me it would be something like 1/100 of a year! Maybe 1/10 tops. And for those such as the OP who think that "there's just no one inside to suffer" - would you risk making such a swap (with a high multiple) if it was somehow magically offered to you?

comment by markus_over · 2020-04-12T11:20:16.805Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I certainly like that argument/thought experiment, I think it's very difficult to imagine the subjective experience of an (arguably) lower degree of consciousness. Depending on what animal's living conditions we're talking about, I'd arguably take 1/10th even assuming human level consciousness (so basically *me* living in a factory farm for 36.5 days to gain one additional year of life as a human), but have naturally a hard time judging what a reasonable value for chicken level consciousness would be.

Also, this framing likely brings a few biases into the mix and reframing it slightly could probably greatly change how people answer. E.g. if you had the choice to die today or live for another 50 years but every year would start with a month experienced as a pig in factory farming conditions, I'd most certainly pick the latter option.

comment by Henry_Stanley · 2020-04-12T13:10:23.662Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting - I would definitely not pick the 50 months as a pig on a factory farm.

comment by Henry_Stanley · 2020-04-12T13:09:38.124Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

.

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:49:16.508Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think veganism doesn't represent a very good tradeoff, and I think we should put our altruistic efforts elsewhere.

For the sake of this comment thread, let's assume that veganism is a substantially worse tradeoff than other altruistic efforts.

Personally, I think that's likely to be true. For people (like me) who place a high likelihood on the sentience of farmed animals, it's worth considering how the costs and benefits of going vegan compare to the costs and benefits of donating to a nonprofit that is attempting to end animal farming through systematic/institutional change (meat alternatives, corporate campaigns, legislative campaigns, etc.). Seems like those nonprofits are probably a lot more efficient at doing good for animals than I am.

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that we shouldn't both go vegan and donate to highly cost-effective charities. Let's use this comment thread to discuss why that might be.

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:59:17.908Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another kind of reason to do both: There is epistemic value to going vegan.

It's legitimately hard to understand the experiences and needs of individuals that are different from us. Most of the time, it's even harder than it needs to be, because we approach them with unfounded prejudices.

Going vegan might be a psychologically necessary step to considering animals' experiences and needs in at least a somewhat objective manner.

(I'm hoping to elaborate on this later, and apologies for the doc-dump, but the elegantly argued and eminently readable John & Sebo 2019 does a great job elaborating on this point: https://jeffsebodotnet.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/consequentialism-and-nonhuman-animals-penultimate.pdf .)

comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2020-04-09T19:47:18.084Z · score: 22 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is odd to me. I see how committing to be vegan can strengthen one's belief in the importance of animal suffering. But my not-very-educated guess is that the effect is more akin to why buying iPhone/Android would strengthen your belief into the superiority of one to another. But I don't see how would it help one to understand/consider animal experiences and needs.

I haven't read the paper in depth but searched for relevant keywords and found:

Additionally, a sequence of five studies from Jonas Kunst and Sigrid Hohle demonstrates that processing meat, beheading a whole roasted pig, watching a meat advertisement without a live animal versus one with a live animal, describing meat production as “harvesting” versus “killing” or “slaughtering,” and describing meat as “beef/pork” rather than “cow/pig” all decreased empathy for the animal in question and, in several cases, significantly increased willingness to eat meat rather than an alternative vegetarian dish.33
Psychologists involved in these and several other studies believe that these phenomena 34 occur because people recognize an incongruity between eating animals and seeing them as beings with mental life and moral status, so they are motivated to resolve this cognitive dissonance by lowering their estimation of animal sentience and moral status. Since these affective attitudes influence the decisions we make, eating meat and embracing the idea of animals as food negatively influences our individual and social treatment of nonhuman animals.

The cited paper (33, 34) do not provide much evidence to support your claim among people who spend significant time reflecting on welfare of animals.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-09T19:23:58.148Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

A few studies described here, too, for a short read.

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:55:26.728Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

One kind of reason to do both: It's not a true tradeoff.

It's easy to spend a lot of money on top-of-the-line vegan cheeses and meats. But it's also quite feasible to meet most people's dietary requirements with vegan foods that cost just as much as, or even less than, animal-based foods. (Shout out to my boi rice-and-beans.)

In that case, we're not trading off dollars for dollars. We're trading off time, effort, and comfort for dollars.

At some point, if you spend enough time on something, it might cut into your earning potential. But many of us have jobs that only allow us to work a certain number of hours per week anyway, or minds that only allow us to be focused and productive for a certain number of hours per week. For these people, it's possible to spend additional time and effort without cutting into earning potential.

So the question is not "Can I do more good than veganism with my money?" but rather "Can I do more good than veganism with my time?" Not a lot of other volunteer opportunities give you the chance to spare multiple individuals from torture every year, so I think it's likely still a good use of time.

(Though this obviously intersects with the other question of "Just how morally valuable is it to spare animals from factory farming?")

comment by Elizabeth · 2020-04-10T04:27:22.554Z · score: 32 (12 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
One kind of reason to do both: It's not a true tradeoff.

This argument comes up a lot in the EA/veganism debate, and I think it's a "minds very different from our own" situation. Some people don't find eating vegan to be costly, or find it cheap enough to not notice. Some people find it prohibitively costly, or so costly that it's not worth considering. What I would ask is that people who find veganism cheap acknowledge that their experience is not universal, and for some people it really is that hard.

This isn't a moral argument. Sometimes the morally correct thing to do is costly. But it doesn't help anything to pretend it's cheap.

comment by antimonyanthony · 2020-04-10T13:19:54.367Z · score: -6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
Some people find it prohibitively costly

This isn't a "minds very different from our own" claim, though. It's an empirical claim about how expensive a vegan diet needs to be to be nutritious. Cam stated: "But it's also quite feasible to meet most people's dietary requirements with vegan foods that cost just as much as, or even less than, animal-based foods." What exactly in that statement do you dispute?

ETA: Even though there is a risk in overstating the case that veganism is universally "cheap," at present it seems that case is far understated. I think the value of Cam's comment is in noting that veganism is at the very least cheaper than most people suspect before trying it.

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-10T14:20:55.730Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think "costly" here just refers to money. I think Elizabeth is talking about all kinds of costs, from time and money to emotions and social connections.

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-09T22:08:27.378Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If we're using Jeff's weighting, he could babysit a neighbor's children for an hour once a decade, receive $5, and donate it to the Against Malaria Foundation, and that would be a better use of his time than all the time spent on veganism.

If you're arguing "people should spend their leisure time doing good", I think that's a different argument - but I think Jeff could find better ways to do good during his leisure time than going vegan.

comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2020-04-09T19:56:43.803Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

One argument against is that begin vegan adds weirdness points [LW · GW], which might make it harder for someone to do workplace activism [? · GW] or might slow one's career in more conservative fields/countries.

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:25:17.282Z · score: 10 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks so much for writing this, Jeff! I think we talked about this the first night we met. Since then, I've always appreciated your thoughtful objections to veganism. The carelessness with which so many people approach the question really bothers me. It's a real treat to talk with an objector who takes the idea seriously and has really thought through their positions.

Of course, on the facts of the matter, I strongly disagree! There are several different kinds of reasons why. I'll post them in separate comments in the hopes of keeping the conversation focused on one idea at a time. (If that's not kosher on the EA Forum, I hope someone will let me know, and I won't do it in the future.)

comment by Korz · 2020-04-10T17:52:21.448Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding the adoption of a fully vegan diet, I can understand the argument.

Could you say something on your position about a 'vegan-friendly' position?

In my experience, diet and taste are strongly formed by habits and expectations, and given habit-forming over a few years it should be easy to substantially reduce animal products in one's diet (compared to the average western diet) without needing to put in much money, time or mental effort. For example one might decide to not actively seek vegan food it it comes at any relevant cost to oneself, but treat it as a serious option otherwise. I think that even when including the danger of trivial inconveniences [LW · GW] into this consideration, it should be possible for most people to slowly accumulate some easily accessible vegan foods that they enjoy into their diet without bearing nearly the full costs of becoming vegan.

Would you agree that such an approach to vegan food would increase the altruistic cost:benefit ratio?

comment by GeorgeBridgwater · 2020-04-09T14:58:34.784Z · score: 9 (12 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would disagree with two steps in your reasoning one the relative importance of different animals but Cameron_Meyer_Shorb [EA · GW] comment already covers this point. Although your conclusion would probably not change if you valued animals more highly making the combined effect of an american diet equal to one or up to maybe ten equivalent years of human life per year ( $430 dollars of enjoyment).

Instead, I think your argument breaks down when accounting for moral uncertainty where if you are not 100% certain in consequentialist ethics then almost any other moral system would hold you much more accountable for pain you cause rather than fail to prevent. Particularly if we increase the required estimate for $ of the enjoyment gained even if they are met. This makes it a different case to other altruistic trade offs you might make in that you are not trading a neutral action.

Another argument against this position is its effect on your moral attitudes as Jeff Sebo argued in his talk at EA global in 2019. You could dismiss this if you are certain it will not effect the relative value you place on other being and by not advertising your position as to not effect others.

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T16:26:53.548Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
Another argument against this position is its effect on your moral attitudes as Jeff Sebo argued in his talk at EA global in 2019. You could dismiss this if you are certain it will not effect the relative value you place on other being and by not advertising your position as to not effect others.

(FYI, this is the argument I was referring to as the "epistemic" argument in my other comment. Thanks for linking to that talk, George!)

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:36:54.334Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
[T]his is the main place where I think I differ from most ethical vegans: I think humans matter much more than these animals.

I agree that this is the biggest difference between you and most ethical vegans!

Let's use this comment thread to discuss differences in estimates of the likelihood that nonhuman animals (or non-me humans) are sentient (where "sentient" means "having morally relevant subjective experiences such as the ability to feel pain").

comment by Cameron_Meyer_Shorb · 2020-04-09T14:43:49.537Z · score: 21 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here are the main reasons I find it overwhelmingly likely that mammals and birds (and very likely that fish) have morally relevant subjective experiences:

  • Behavior. They respond to potentially-painful things in almost all the same ways humans do (except for verbally articulating their experiences in a language I understand).
  • Evolution. The best evolutionary rationale I can think of for why humans have subjective experiences is that that might be a good way of motivating us to avoid experiences that tend to be bad for our reproductive fitness. (Note that this evolutionary story doesn't suggest a strong connection between sentience and intelligence. In fact, it might suggest that less intelligent species are more reliant on strong subjective experiences to learn and motivate their behavior.) That rationale would apply to almost all mobile creatures (but much less so for mostly immobile ones like mussels or plants).

Here are the main reasons I doubt that mammals, birds, or fish have morally relevant subjective experiences:

  • Inaccessibility. Subjective experiences are, by their nature, personal. So I can't directly observe these experiences in others. This applies to other humans' sentience.
  • Programmability. For any given behavior, I can imagine a computer program that responds to the same stimulus in the same way without having a morally relevant subjective experience. This applies to other adult humans' sentience somewhat, but not quite as well, because we seem to have pretty similar machinery. It applies more so to babies, children, or other humans with brains that are more different than mine.
  • Radical uncertainty. I really don't have a good idea of what sentience consists of, what anatomy is needed to support it, or why it evolved. This applies to other humans' sentience.

In the end, while there are good reasons to be uncertain about the sentience of other species, these reasons are at least somewhat applicable to other humans, too. So my uncertainty about the sentience of other vertebrate species isn't much more than an order of magnitude higher than my uncertainty about the sentience of other humans.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-09T17:26:06.982Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
Peter Hurford gives a very rough set of numbers for how many animals are required to support a standard American diet and gets:
1/8 of a cow
1/8 of a pig
3 chickens
3 fish

Is this alive at any moment?

I don't see these numbers in the article you quoted, and based on the claim 13.2 chickens for meat and an elasticity of 0.76 for chicken meat from Compassion by the Pound, that would put it at ~10 killed per year.

Also, these numbers are probably out of date and use less reliable data than more recent ones. You can look at the slaughter statistics from the USDA (check Historical and sum over), divide by the number of Americans (or non-veg Americans) and adjust with elasticities. Over 9.2 billion broiler chickens in 2019, 330 million Americans, so > 27 per American, and adjusting for elasticity, 20 per American.

This accounted for imports and exports and non-slaughter deaths, and got 7.9 billion chickens killed per year from Americans, so > 18 chickens killed per American per year after adjusting for elasticity.

Some other calculations:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/YuFD4v7DFBcM57eSA/consequences-of-animal-product-consumption-combined-model [EA · GW]

https://reducing-suffering.org/how-much-direct-suffering-is-caused-by-various-animal-foods/

https://impartial-priorities.org/direct-suffering-caused-by-various-animal-foods.html

http://ethical.diet/

http://sandhoefner.github.io/animal_suffering_calculator

http://sandhoefner.github.io/omnivore.html

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-04-10T12:52:42.447Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I forgot this would be crossposted here automatically and this version was (until just now) missing an edit I made just after publishing: "how many animals" should have been "how many continuously living animals". Since animal lives on factory farms are net negative, and their ongoing suffering is a far bigger factor than their deaths, I don't care about the number of individual animals but instead how many animal-days. So I wouldn't see breeding pigs that produced twice as much meat and lived twice as long as an improvement, though perhaps you would?

The numbers are Hurford's:

36 days of suffering via beef
8 days of suffering via dairy
44 days of suffering via pork
554 days of suffering via chicken meat
347 days of suffering via eggs
76 days of suffering via turkey
949 days of suffering via aquacultured fish

but expressed in the much more natural units of continuously living animals and not animal-days per human-years.

After quickly looking at the numbers you posted it doesn't look like any of them change this by more than a factor of two, and don't look like they would change the bottom line of the argument at all. Do you disagree?

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-04-10T17:29:09.876Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
but expressed in the much more natural units of continuously living animals and not animal-days per human-years.

Ok, makes sense. Thanks for the clarification!

After quickly looking at the numbers you posted it doesn't look like any of them change this by more than a factor of two, and don't look like they would change the bottom line of the argument at all. Do you disagree?

No, that seems right.

comment by Khorton · 2020-04-09T22:21:19.292Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it was good to write this up so people can debate it or point to it as their own rationale. I upvoted. Thanks Jeff!

comment by wwarner · 2020-04-17T15:55:59.873Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi -- Thank you for writing this! I'm a person who is familiar with the broad strokes of consequentialism, but I've never read any Singer and I've never seen the arithmetic laid out as plainly you've done in this blog post. First, I'll describe what I think your reasoning is, and then, fully acknowledging that I might not understand your argument very well, I'll end with a little critique. Anyone can pile onto either part, by saying that I completely missed the point of your argument, or by pointing out flaws in my own reasoning.

When I was reading your post, I got a bit lost when you switched from counting life years to counting dollars. I'm going to reduce the problem to a hypothetical person who eats 1/8 of a pig every year but otherwise only eats plants, and like you, this person values the life of a pig at 1% of that of a person. If this person decided to give up eating pig meat, he or she would save the life of 1/8 of a pig per year, or equivalently 1/800 of a person per year. We want to put a price on sacrifice that our pig eater made by giving up meat, and we do that by saying that saving the life of a person costs $100. Compare that to saving 1/800 of a person by giving up pig meat, and we get $0.12. And we conclude that the inconvenience and the diminished pleasure that you would experience would be worth far more than 12 cents.

Do I have that right?

If I do, I guess I think that these incommensurates are harder to compare than the argument allows. It reminds me of the order of magnitude estimates for the likelihood of the existence of alien life in the universe. Usually, you'll see scientists using Drake's equation to argue that it's extremely likely that alien life is out there somewhere, but occasionally you'll see a creationist use exactly the same kind of reasoning, with different parameters and different magnitudes, to show how likely it is that life on Earth is unique. Meanwhile, Goldilocks planets are discovered, the amount of matter in the universe changes by a factor of 10, nuclear arsenals are stockpiled and pandemics sweep over the planet, and none of that can be accounted for by the order of magnitude argument.

I'm not able to simplify the issue, unfortunately. For me, it's a mixture of ethical concerns, for animals, the Earth, and perhaps ultimately human health and well being.

On the other hand, for me, the take away from the story you wrote is that pig lives and human lives are at stake when we make decisions as a society. I find both ends of the argument instructive -- pigs are harmed when we farm them inhumanely, but at the same time one shouldn't overstate the value of saving pigs, as it can't really be compared to saving the life of a person.

--Bill

comment by chegreen · 2020-04-11T15:51:36.706Z · score: -5 (15 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is disappointing and a great example of the arrogance and speciesism that make it difficult for many animal advocates to embrace EA concepts.