Some thoughts on vegetarianism and veganism

post by richard_ngo · 2022-02-14T02:34:47.520Z · EA · GW · 98 comments

I feel pretty confused about whether I, as an effective altruist, should be vegetarian/vegan (henceforth abbreviated veg*n). I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explicitly talk about the arguments which feel most compelling to me, so I thought I’d do that here, in a low-effort way.

I think that factory farming is one of the worst ongoing moral atrocities. But most of the arguments I’ve heard for veg*nism, which I found compelling a few years ago, hinge on the effects that my personal consumption would have on decreasing factory farming (and sometimes on climate change). I now don’t find this line of thinking persuasive - my personal consumption decisions just have such a tiny effect compared to my career/donation decisions that it feels like I shouldn’t pay much attention to their direct consequences (beyond possibly donating to offset them).

But there are three other arguments which seem more compelling. First is a deontological argument: if you think something is a moral atrocity, you shouldn’t participate in it, even if you offset the effects of your contribution. In general, my utilitarian intuitions are much stronger than my deontological ones, but I do think that following deontological principles is often a very good heuristic for behaving morally. The underlying reason is that humans by default think more naturally in terms of black-and-white categories than shades of grey. As Yudkowsky writes [LW · GW]:

Any rule that's not labeled "absolute, no exceptions" lacks weight in people's minds. So you have to perform that the "Don't kill" commandment is absolute and exceptionless (even though it totally isn't), because that's what it takes to get people to even hesitate. To stay their hands at least until the weight of duty is crushing them down. A rule that isn't even absolute? People just disregard that whenever.

Without strong rules in place it’s easy to reason our way into all sorts of behaviour. In particular, it’s easy to underestimate the actual level of harm that certain actions cause - e.g. thinking of the direct effects of eating meat but ignoring the effects of normalising eating meat, or normalising “not making personal sacrifices on the basis of moral arguments”, or things like that. And so implementing rules like “never participate in moral atrocities” sends a much more compelling signal than “only participate in moral atrocities when you think that’s net-positive”. That signal helps set an example for people around you - which seems particularly important if you spend time with people who are or will become influential. But it also strengthens your own self-identity as someone who prioritises the world going well.

Then there’s a community-level argument about what we want EA to look like. Norms about veg*nism within the community help build a high-trust environment (since veg*nism is a costly signal), and increase internal cohesion, especially between different cause areas. At the very least, these arguments justify not serving animal products at EA conferences.

Lastly, there’s an argument about how I (and the EA community) are seen by wider society. Will MacAskill sometimes uses the phrase “moral entrepreneurs”, which I think gestures in the right direction: we want to be ahead of the curve, identifying and building on important trends in advance. I expect that veg*nism will become much more mainstream than it currently is; insofar as EA is a disproportionately veg*n community, this will likely bolster our moral authority.

I think there are a few arguments cutting the other way, though. I think one key concern is that these arguments are kinda post-hoc. It’s not necessarily that they’re wrong, it’s more like: I originally privileged the hypothesis that veg*nism is a good idea based on arguments about personal impact which I now don’t buy. And so, now that I’m thinking more about it, I’ve found a bunch of arguments which support it - but I suspect I could construct similarly compelling arguments for the beneficial consequences of a dozen other personal life choices (related to climate change, social justice, capitalism, having children, prison reform, migration reform, drug reform, etc). In other words: maybe the world is large enough that we have to set a high threshold for deontological arguments, in order to avoid being swamped by moral commitments.

Secondly, on a community level, EA is the one group that is most focused on doing really large amounts of good. And so actually doing cost-benefit analyses to figure out that most personal consumption decisions aren’t worth worrying about seems like the type of thing we want to reinforce in our community. Perhaps what’s most important to protect is this laser-focus on doing the most good without trying to optimise too hard for the approval of the rest of society - because that's how we can keep our edge, and avoid dissolving into mainstream thinking.

Thirdly, the question of whether going veg*n strengthens your altruistic motivations is an empirical one which I feel pretty uncertain about. There may well be a moral licensing effect where veg*ns feel (disproportionately) like they’ve done their fair share of altruistic action; or maybe parts of you will become resentful about these constraints. This probably varies a lot for different people.

Fourthly, I am kinda worried about health effects, especially on short-to-medium-term energy levels. I think it’s the type of thing which could probably be sorted out after a bit of experimentation - but again, from my current perspective, the choice to dedicate that experimentation to maintaining my health instead of, say, becoming more productive feels like a decision I’d only make if I were privileging the intervention of veg*nism over other things I could spend my time and effort on.

I don’t really have any particular conclusion to this post; I wrote it mainly to cover a range of arguments that people might not have seen before, and also to try and give a demonstration of the type of reasoning I want to encourage in EA. (A quick search also turns up a post by Jess Whittlestone [EA · GW] covering similar considerations.) If I had to give a recommendation, I think probably the dominant factor is how your motivational structure works, in particular whether you’ll interpret the additional moral constraint more as a positive reinforcement of your identity as an altruist, or more as something which drains or stresses you. (Note though that, since people systematically overestimate how altruistic they are, I expect that most people will underrate the value of the former. On the other hand, effective altruists are one of the populations most strongly selected for underrating the importance of avoiding the latter.)


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-14T07:15:31.246Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Copying a comment I once wrote:

  • eating veg sits somewhere between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities" in terms of expected impact, and I'm not sure where to draw the line between "altruistic actions that seem way too costly and should be discouraged" and "altruistic actions that seem a reasonable early step in one's EA journey and should be encouraged"

  • Intuitively and anecdotally (and based on some likely-crappy papers), it seems harder to see animals as sentient beings or think correctly about the badness of factory farming while eating meat; this form of motivated reasoning plausibly distorts most people's epistemics, and this is about a pretty important part of the world, and recognizing the badness of factory farming has minor implications for s-risks and other AI stuff

Replies from: Habryka, JackRyan, Stefan_Schubert
comment by Habryka · 2022-02-15T03:24:32.252Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

eating veg sits somewhere between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities" in terms of expected impact, and I'm not sure where to draw the line between "altruistic actions that seem way too costly and should be discouraged" and "altruistic actions that seem a reasonable early step in one's EA journey and should be encouraged"

I am very confused by this statement. I feel like we've generally universally agreed that we don't really encourage people as a community to take altruistic actions if we don't really think it competes with the best alternatives that person has. Almost all altruistic interventions lie between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities", and indeed, we encourage ~0% of that range for participants of the EA community. So just based on that observation, our prior should clearly also tend towards being unopinionated on this topic.

On this principle, why would the answer here be different than our answer on whether you should locate your company in a place with higher-tax burden because it sets a good example of cooperating on global governance? Or whether to buy products that are the result of exploitative working practices? Or buy from companies with bad security practices? Or volunteer at your local homeless shelter? All of these are in effectiveness between "avoid intercontinental flights" and "donate to effective charities", as far as I can tell (unless you think that "avoiding intercontinental flights" is somehow a much better value proposition, when it seems like one of the least cost-effective interventions I can think of, given the extremely high cost of avoiding intercontinental flights).

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-15T16:17:04.777Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, the "avoid interncontinental flights" was intended as something clearly ineffective that people still do – i.e. as an example of something that seems way too costly and should be discouraged. So I fully agree with you we should encourage ~0% of that range for EAs.

My point is that avoiding animal products is substantially more cost-effective than those interventions, but I'm still not sure whether it meets the threshold for EA activity, but it might. It's been a while since I looked into the exact numbers, but I think you can avert substantial time spent by animals on factory farms by avoiding animal products, and that seems a lot better than the other examples you gave, and perhaps better than donating to effective global health charities.

comment by Jack R (JackRyan) · 2022-02-18T16:56:52.891Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not very convinced of your second point (though I could be -- curious to hear why it feels true for you). I don't currently see why you think the bolded words instead of: "it seems harder to see the importance of future beings or think correctly about the badness of existential risk while wasting time eating non-meat"

It feels like a universally compelling argument, or at least, I don't see where you think the argument should stop applying on a spectrum between something like "it seems hard to think correctly about x-risk without having a career in it" and "it seems hard to think correctly about the importance of all sentient beings while squashing dust mites every time you sleep"

ETA: I imagine you wrote the bolded words because they feel true to you i.e. that eating meat might cause you to value drift or have worse epistemics in certain ways such that it's worth staying vegan. I am curious about what explicable arguments that feeling (if you have it) might be tracking (e.g. in case they cause me to stay vegan).

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer, MichaelStJules
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-18T18:10:21.094Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think your third paragraph describes what I think / feel. It's more the other way around: I used to eat a lot of meat, and once I stopped doing that, I started seeing animals with different eyes (treating them as morally relevant, and internalizing that a lot more). The reason why I don't eat meat now is not that I think it would cause value drift, but that it would make me deeply sad and upset – eating meat would feel similar to owning slaves that I treat poorly, or watching a gladiator fight for my own amusement. It just feels deeply morally wrong and isn't enjoyable anymore. The fact that the consequences are only mildly negative in the grand scheme of things doesn't change that. So I'm actually not sure if my argument supports me remaining a vegan now, but I think it's a strong argument for me to go vegan in the first place at some point.

My guess is that a lot of people don't actually see animals as sentient beings whose emotions and feelings matter a great deal, but more like cute things to have fun with. And anecdotally, how someone perceives animals seems to be determined by whether they eat them, not the other way around. (Insert plausible explanation – cognitive dissonance, rationalizations, etc.) I think squashing dust mites, drinking milk, eating eggs etc. seems to have a much less strong effect in comparison to eating meat, presumably because they're less visceral, more indirect/accidental ways of hurting animals.

Replies from: MichaelStJules, JackRyan
comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-18T22:08:30.525Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it's plausible that being more deliberate in your diet to avoid the lowest welfare options could have a lot of the same impact on your own perceptions of animals.

That being said, eating meat again would feel wrong to me, too. I specifically work on animal welfare. How can I eat those I'm trying to help?

Similarly, I'm a bit suspicious of non-vegetarian veterinarians helping farmed animals. If working with farmed animals doesn't turn them away from meat, do they actually have their best interests at heart? What kind of doctor eats their patients?

And maybe this logic extends to those weighing the interests of nonhuman animals or similarly minded artificial sentience in the future.

comment by Jack R (JackRyan) · 2022-02-18T21:56:22.166Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

it would make me deeply sad and upset

That makes sense, yeah. And I could see this being costly enough such that it's best to continue avoiding meat.

Replies from: JackRyan
comment by Jack R (JackRyan) · 2022-02-18T21:59:36.578Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm still not very convinced of your original point, though -- when I simulate myself becoming non-vegan, I don't imagine this counterfactually causing me to lose my concern for animals (nor does it seem like it would harm my epistemics? Though not sure if I trust my inner sim here. It does seem like that,  if anything, going non-vegan would help my epistemics, since, in my case, being vegan wastes enough time such that it is harmful for future generations to be vegan, and by continuing to be vegan I am choosing to ignore that fact).

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-19T00:30:07.983Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, as I tried to explain above (perhaps it was too implicit), I think it probably matters much more whether you went vegan at some point in your life than whether you're vegan right now.

I don't feel confident in this; I wanted to mainly offer it as a hypothesis that could be tested further. I also mentioned the existence of crappy papers that support my perspective (you can probably find them in 5 minutes on Google Scholar). If people thought this was important, they could investigate this more.

I'll tap out of the conversation now – don't feel like I have time to discuss further, sorry.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-18T23:12:46.101Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think underweighting the interests of animals and future beings with similar cognitive capacities is more likely to cause you to end up working on the wrong interventions or causes than is being roughly uniformly slightly less productive because you spend more time on veg food, and the risk of working on the wrong things could be more important than the small loss of productivity. Differences between interventions and causes can be pretty large. However, this isn't obvious, and it could go the other way. And maybe going veg*n causes someone to underweight the far future or the less measurable relative to the near term or more measurable.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-02-15T12:29:15.266Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Could you expand on what effects eating meat would have on thinking about s-risks and other AI stuff? What kinds of scenarios are you thinking of? 

My initial reaction is somewhat sceptical. I think these effects are hard to assess and could go either way. But it depends a bit on what mechanisms you have in mind.

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-15T16:30:30.545Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Quickly written:

  • Nobody actively wants factory farming to happen, but it's the cheapest way to get something we want (i.e. meat), and we've built a system where it's really hard for altruists to stop it from happening. If a pattern like this extended into the long-term future, we might want to do something about it.
  • In the context of AI, suffering subroutines might be an example of that.
  • Regarding futures without strong AGI: Factory farming is the arguably most important example of a present-day ongoing atrocity. If you fully internalize just how bad this is, that there's something like a genocide (in terms of moral badness, not evilness) going on right here, right now, under our eyes, in wealthy Western democracies that are often understood to be the most morally advanced places on earth, and it's really hard for us to stop it, that might affect your general outlook on the long-term future. I still think the long-term future will be great in expectation, but it also makes me think that utopian visions that don't consider these downside risks seem pretty naïve.
Replies from: Stefan_Schubert
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-02-15T16:44:30.840Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


Regarding the first point, yeah we should do something about it, but that seems unrelated to the point about eating meat leading to motivated reasoning about s-risks and AI.

Regarding the second point, it is not obvious to me that eating meat leads to worse reasoning about suffering subroutines. In principle the opposite might be true. Seems very hard to tell. I think there is a risk that arguments about this often beg the question (e.g. by assuming that suffering subroutines are a major risk, which is the issue under discussion).

Regarding the third point - not quite sure I follow, but in any event I think that futures without strong AGI might be dominated in expected value terms by futures with strong AGI. And certainly future downside risks should be considered, but the link between that and current meat-eating is non-obvious.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-14T10:59:14.656Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, I've had similar thoughts: I used to think being veg*n was, in some sense, really morally important and not doing it would be really letting the side down. But, after doing it for a few years, I felt much less certain about it.*

To press though, what seems odd about the "the other things I do are so much more impactful, why should I even worry about this?" line is that it has an awkward whisper of self-importance and that it would license all sorts of other behaviours. 

To draw this out with a slightly silly and not perfect analogy, imagine we hear a story about some medieval king who sometimes, but not always, kicked people and animals that got in his way. When asked by some brave lackey, "m'lord, but why do you kick them; surely there is no need?" The king replies (imagine a booming voice for best effect) "I am very important and do much good work.  Given this, whether I kick or not kick is truly a rounding error, a trifle, on my efforts and I do not propose to pay attention to these consequences".

I think that we might grant that what the king says is true - kicking things is genuinely a very small negative compared to the large positive of his other actions. However, we might still be bothered by two things. First, it's rude for him to remind us how much more important he is than us, even if it's true. Second, the kicking still seems unnecessary, even if it's only small. It's not like it helps him be more impactful with the rest of his life. So perhaps our intuitions on the meat-eating case turn on whether we think it's a serious vs a trivial sacrifice to stop doing it. 


*In fact,  I've been experimenting with a 'welfaretarian' diet (where you only eat animals that have had happy lives) recently and might write something up on that at some point. 

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer, sofiabalderson, robirahman, Devin Kalish, AimingForEffective
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2022-02-15T23:35:51.355Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

… except that not kicking people also saves time, whereas entirely avoiding animal products often involves significant hassle and time cost?

Replies from: antimonyanthony
comment by antimonyanthony · 2022-02-16T10:03:16.277Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I suspect there are examples of things EAs do out of consideration for other humans that are just as costly, and they justify them on the grounds that this comes out of their "fuzzies" budget. e.g. Investing in serious romantic or familial relationships. I'm personally rather skeptical that I would spend any time and money saved by being non-vegan on altruistically important things, even if I wanted to. (Plus there is Nikola's point [EA(p) · GW(p)] that if you already do care a lot about animals, the emotional cost of acting in a way that financially supports factory farming could be nontrivial.)

comment by SofiaBalderson (sofiabalderson) · 2022-02-14T20:46:23.461Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your comment and love the story! Re your welfaretarian argument,  how do you measure the happiness of the animals if you didn’t grow them yourself?  Also, can a life be happy if you are ultimately killed before your time has come?  I’m not judging, just curious about this concept as I haven’t heard of this. 

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-15T16:11:30.364Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Well, I don't know if you can really measure the welfare of animals at all, seeing as they can't tell us how they feel. It's more like we infer how they are doing based on their behaviour, their conditions, what we know from their evolutionary history about what they are adapted to. Currently, the way I think about it is that it's intensively reared animals that are the ones with bad lives. So factory-farmed pigs, chickens, and cows, as well as farmed fish are probably unhappy overall. But I could believe that sheep, deer, wild fish have happy lives.

I think a life can be happy even if cut short. It depends on how you think about population ethics and the badness of death, but I don't want to get into the different options here. If you take a sort of standard 'totalist' view of these things, the world is better the more wellbeing there is in it, so adding a life that's happy whilst it lasts (even if shorter than it could have been) is a good thing.

comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-02-16T01:30:49.185Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm strongly in favor of 'welfaretarianism'! It's been my diet* for a few years now and I'm really glad you invented a name for it. I've been telling people for ages that I agree you shouldn't eat animals that suffer while farmed if it causes more of them to exist, but people don't really internalize the logical conclusion of this, that it's good to eat animals if it causes happy animals to exist (assuming you don't subscribe to negative utilitarianism or the person-affecting view) or existing animals to become happier. Hypothetically, if it were more profitable to sell meat from happy chickens than from battery-cage chickens, all factory farms would switch over to raising happy chickens, though this will probably never happen due to costs and I don't think consumers are willing to pay that much more.

*I don't actually eat any meat from happily-farmed animals because I don't know how you would find such a thing, but I'd be willing to eat it if it existed. In practice this resulted in me going from omnivore to lacto-vegetarian by cutting out meat products in order of most to least suffering per calorie.

comment by Devin Kalish · 2022-02-15T21:32:57.038Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This comment captures a lot of my concerns about offsetting arguments in the context of veganism, as well as more generally. Spelled out a bit more, my worry for EAs is that we often:

1.Think we ought to donate a large amount

  1. Actually donate some amount that is much smaller than this but much larger than most people

  2. Discourage each other from sanctioning people who are donating much more than other people, for not donating enough

Offsetting bad acts can presumably fall into the same pool as other donations, which leads to the following issue:

let’s say that Jerry goes around kicking strangers, and also donates 20% of his income to charity, and let’s also stipulate that Jerry really thinks he ought to donate 80% of his income to charity, and that 10% of his income is enough to offset his stranger kicking. Now you might be tempted to criticize Jerry for kicking strangers, but hold on, 10 percentage points of his donations cancel out this stranger kicking, would we be criticizing Jerry for only donating 10% of his income to charity? If not, it seems we cannot criticize Jerry. But wait a minute, later we learn that Jerry actually would have donated 30% of his income to charity if he wasn’t stranger kicking, so we were wrong, his stranger kicking isn’t canceled out by his donations, it actually makes his donations worse!

Since many EAs have ideal donating thresholds much higher than they will ever reach, we don’t have a default standard to anchor their offsetting to, everything falls short by some significant amount. And since we discourage people from criticizing those who give a good deal but not enough, Jerry wouldn’t get sanctioned much more for donating 10% rather than 30%, the ethics just aren’t high enough resolution for that. The upshot is that Jerries can get away with doing almost arbitrary amounts of dickish things and not necessarily doing anything to compensate that we could hold them accountable to. Moral hazard and slippery slope arguments can be suspicious, but this is one I am fairly confident is a real problem with offsetting, at least for EAs.

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-15T23:49:56.211Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Right. The problem with offsetting is that rather than (1) doing something bad (eg kicking (medieval) peasants) and then (2) offsetting it somehow (eg by donating money), the better outcome is where you do (2), ie the offset and then just don't do the bad thing at all.

Someone might claim they won't do (2) unless they do (1), and therefore the better outcome is that they do both (1) and (2) rather than neither (1) or (2). But this is deeply suspicious and suggests a very contorted psychology. ("Funny thing is that if I don't kick the peasant, I just can make myself donate, actually. Soooo, are you going to line him up for me or shall I do it?")

Amanda Askell, Tyler John, and Hayden Wilkinson have an excellent paper on offsetting but I don't think it's public. Here's a link to some earlier work by Amanda that was all I could find after a quick google. 

Replies from: Devin Kalish
comment by Devin Kalish · 2022-02-16T15:42:56.749Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm excited to read it when it comes out! I've read Askell's post on it before, I think it's mostly right, though I don't think it gets at the potential problems with offsetting for even more mild harms enough.

comment by AimingForEffective · 2022-03-10T08:16:32.462Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

how do the other things you do have great impact than going vegan (which are not mutually exclusive), given that farmed animals have lives way worse than almost all humans?  i'm not even gonna humor the awful analogy of kicking things or not, which makes zero sense.

comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-14T18:59:55.322Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm quite baffled by the argument that, because giving to charity or changing career can do more good than dietary change, this then means it's permissible or even advisable to avoid dietary change. Relative values are entirely irrelevant. In my opinion the absolute consequentialist value of being ve*an is still considerable, and it is this absolute value that ultimately matters.

Usually we think of saving one human life, or saving one life from severe suffering, to be an incredibly valuable thing to do - and it is. Why shouldn't this be the case for farm animals? Going ve*an will impact far more than just one animal's life anyway - Brian Tomasik estimates that “avoiding eating one chicken or fish roughly translates to one less chicken or fish raised and killed”. It's also worth noting that over 99% of farm animals in the USA live on factory farms.

There are strong consequentialist reasons for going ve*an other than the direct effects on the animals we eat which are well-covered here. One of the most important in my opinion is that you can influence others to change their diet and generally spread concern for animals and expand our moral circle. We need a society that stops seeing animals as objects to reduce the chances of s-risks, where vast amounts of suffering are locked in. How can we care about digital sentience when we don't even care about cows?

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor, Stefan_Schubert
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-02-15T16:35:27.587Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Relative values are entirely irrelevant.

They seem relevant because willpower and attention budgets are limited, and our altruism-directed activities (and habits, etc.) draw from those budgets.

One of the most important in my opinion is that you can influence others to change their diet and generally spread concern for animals and expand our moral circle. We need a society that stops seeing animals as objects to reduce the chances of s-risks, where vast amounts of suffering are locked in. How can we care about digital sentience when we don't even care about cows?

I concede that this argument goes through probabilistically, but I feel like people overestimate its effect.

Almost none of the non-vegetarian EAs would want to lock in animal suffering for the long-term future, so the argument that personal veg*ism makes a difference on s-risks is a bit conjunctive. It seems to rely on the hidden premise that humans will attain control over the future, but EA values will die out or only have a negligible effect. That's possible, but it doesn't rank among the scenarios I'd consider likely.

I think the trajectory of civilization will gravitate toward one of two attractors: (1) People's "values" will become less and less relevant as Moloch dynamics accelerate (2) People's "values" will be more in control than ever before

If (1) happens, it doesn't matter in the long run what people value today.

If (2) happens, any positive concern for the welfare of nonhumans will likely go far. For instance, in a world where it's technologically easy to give every person what they want without side effects, even just 10% of the population being concerned about nonhuman welfare could achieve the goal of society not causing harm to animals (or digital minds) via compromise.

You may say "but why assume compromise instead of war or value-assimilation where minority values die out?"

Okay, those are possibilities. But like I said, it makes the claim more conjunctive.

Also, there are some reasons to expect altruistic values to outcompete self-oriented ones. (Note that this blog post was written before Open Phil, before FTX, etc.) (Relatedly, we can see that, outside of EA, most people don't seem to care or recognize how difficult it is for humans to attain control over the long-term future. )

Maybe we live in an unlucky world where some kind of AI-aided stable totalitarianism is easy to bring about (in the sense that it doesn't require unusual degrees of organizational competence or individual rationality, but people can"stumble" into a series technological inventions that opens the door to it). Still, in that world, there are again some non-obvious steps from "slightly increasing the degree the average Westerner cares about nonhuman animals" to "preventing AI-aided dictatorship with bad values." Spreading concern for nonhuman suffering likely has a positive effect here, but it looks unlikely to be very important compared to other interventions. Conditioning on that totalitarian lock-in scenario, it seems more directly useful to promote norms around personal integrity to prevent people with dictatorial tendencies from attaining positions of influence/power or working on AI governance.

I think there are s-risks we can tractably address, but I see the biggest risks around failure modes of transformative AI (technical problems rather than problems with people's values).

Among interventions around moral circle expansion, I'm most optimistic about addressing risks of polarization – preventing that concern for the whole cause area becomes "something associated with the out-group," something that people look down on for various reasons. (For instance, I didn't like this presentation.) In my ideal scenario, all the non-veg*an EAs would often put in a good word for the intentions behind vegetarianism or veganism and emphasize agreement with the view that sentient minds deserve our care. (I largely see this happening already.)

(Arguably, personal veganism or vegetarianism are great ways to prevent concern for nonhumans from becoming "something associated with the out-group." [Esp. if the people who go veg don't promote their diets as an ideology in an off-putting fashion – otherwise it can backfire.] )

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-16T22:22:15.844Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this thoughtful response. 

(2) People's "values" will be more in control than ever before

If (2) happens, any positive concern for the welfare of nonhumans will likely go far. For instance, in a world where it's technologically easy to give every person what they want without side effects, even just 10% of the population being concerned about nonhuman welfare could achieve the goal of society not causing harm to animals (or digital minds) via compromise.

Hmm this just feels a bit hopeful to me. We may well move into this attractor state, but what if we lock-in suffering (not necessarily forever maybe just for a long time) before this point? The following paragraphs from the Center for Reducing Suffering's page on S-risks concern me:

Crucially, factory farming is the result of economic incentives and technological feasibility, not of human malice or bad intentions. Most humans don’t approve of animal suffering per se – getting tasty food incidentally happens to involve animal suffering.4 In other words, technological capacity plus indifference is already enough to cause unimaginable amounts of suffering. This should make us mindful of the possibility that future technologies might lead to a similar moral catastrophe.


Comparable to how large numbers of nonhuman animals were created because it was economically expedient, it is conceivable that large numbers of artificial minds will be created in the future. They will likely enjoy various advantages over biological minds, which will make them economically useful. This combination of large numbers of sentient minds and foreseeable lack of moral consideration presents a severe s-risk. In fact, these conditions look strikingly similar to those of factory farming.

Overall I'm worried our values may not improve as fast our technology.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-02-15T13:02:44.892Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In general, I don't think that relative values are irrelevant. Speaking in entirely abstract terms, if the value of doing one thing A is extremely much higher than that of doing another thing B, and both A and B are somewhat costly, then it might be reasonable not to do B and focus your mental energy on doing A well. It seems to me that EAs are using such reasoning in other circumstances.

Of course, what to do in any specific case depends on the empirics of that case. This is just to say that relative values aren't generally irrelevant.

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-15T16:19:51.818Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. In the case of being ve*an I think relative value is mostly irrelevant because dietary change shouldn’t preclude you from the other high impact actions (career change or donating money). In other words there’s no direct opportunity cost of dietary change because we have to eat, we just choose to eat something else.

If going ve*an is sufficiently inconvenient for an individual to the extent that it substantially inhibits their work productivity then your point is valid, but it really shouldn’t be. If anything my transition to veganism improved my productivity via health benefits. Personally I’m not at all inconvenienced by having to find vegan options given that I live in London where options are plentiful (although I appreciate this isn’t the case for everyone).

Replies from: rohinmshah
comment by Rohin Shah (rohinmshah) · 2022-02-15T19:06:46.261Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seems like there are clear time/money costs? As a simple example, if you get coffee from Starbucks every day, switching from regular milk to plant-based milk for coffee could cost $0.50 per day -- maybe you'd do better by saving that $0.50 and donating an extra $100 every year.

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-15T22:27:09.492Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’m not convinced ve*isn costs more overall. It think it can cost a lot less as fruit, veg, lentils, beans, nuts etc. are generally very cheap whereas meat is quite expensive? This research finds vegan meals are generally 40% cheaper than meat and fish counterparts.

As for time costs these are negligible/zero for me now.

Replies from: technicalities
comment by Gavin (technicalities) · 2022-02-15T23:41:37.057Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are two kinds of vegan though, and most of us want to be the fancy kind.

>  There are a small number of vegan protein options that are cheaper than the animal-based equivalent, and then there are a wide variety of ones that are more expensive. If you build your diet from the first category it's cheap and environmentally sustainable, but the limited choices mean most people won't find it as enjoyable as what they were eating. On the other hand, the second category offers enough options to suit most palates but it costs more.

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-16T08:11:33.947Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But the research I linked to indicated that vegans generally spend less.

Also this news story cites research that says the following:

Financial advice company Cleo found that, after three months on the diet, meat eaters who go vegan end up spending £21 less per month on eating out and groceries.

However, vegetarians who opted to go vegan ended up spending £11 more per month.

So generally vegetarianism seems to be the cheapest diet, followed by veganism followed by meat eating.

comment by Luke Freeman (lukefreeman) · 2022-02-14T05:15:09.603Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A lot of the arguments for this are ones that I would have suggested anyway so I won't speak to that much other than to say that I broadly agree.

Two main things where I think I can add value:

  1. Often our decisions aren't mutually exclusive and looking through a single 'impact' lens can be a bit myopic and counterproductive. Most of the time going veg*n has virtually zero negative tradeoff with other impact decisions for me, it doesn't make it harder to work on important issues nor does it get in the way of donations. Most of the time there are 'buckets' of resources/decisions that we have that don't trade off against each other. Where externalities exist with eating animals for me they have mostly been positive (e.g. commitment, compassion, authenticity, credibility etc etc). This differs from person to person. For example, I've drawn the line at being  something in between a vegan and vegetarian diet (and have allowed for the occasional bivalve). This is similar to donations, sure, someone could have a huge impact (in expectation) if they do some form of direct work, but even after they spend on increasing their own impact they'll probably have budget to do a heck of a lot of good via donating.
  2. On the health effects: I understand this hesitation (I felt it too) but in most cases this is a nonstarter. I'm incredibly fit and active and that hasn't changed since changing my diet. The same goes for many regular folk right through to professional athletes. The only caveat is that I might recommend creatine and/or vitamin B depending on your lifestyle/body. It would surprise me a lot if you'd even notice much (I'm not sure about how you currently eat/cook etc though to understand how much you'd need to learn to adapt your diet healthily). I've noticed more people get healthier from changing their diet than the other way around.

Personally, I've found it to be a positive change in my life for many reasons (impact, motivation, and otherwise) and think it's a good thing for our community that we're overrepresented by people taking the wellbeing of others seriously enough to make a relatively minor lifestyle change that has a fairly direct and positive impact. If I were to imagine the reverse (that EA had a lower than average population of people on a veg*n diet) then I'd find it hard to promote our community/ideas because I'd find it hard to expect outsiders to take us seriously (and I'd find it hard to take us seriously too).

Replies from: Sjlver
comment by Sjlver · 2022-02-16T19:28:53.981Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My experience is similar to Luke's.

One of the main benefits of becoming vegan was that it removed a cognitive dissonance from my life -- a sadness at the back of my head because my actions had been different from my values. After becoming vegan, my lifestyle and my convictions were more aligned. This was quite a liberating and joyful feeling.

I think that becoming vegan should be a win-win decision. If a vegan diet feels like a burden, or distracts from more important issues, or causes health problems, then by all means stop and eat whatever you like. But chances are that, after a while, you become a happier and healthier person.

My last bit of advice is to not be too dogmatic about veganism. The animal industry is surprisingly elastic*, and so each egg not bought will reduce demand and cause some fraction of a statistical chicken to not be born and not suffer. You don't have to be 100% vegan to have an impact ;-)

* I wish I'd have good numbers to back this claim...

comment by Habryka · 2022-02-14T06:01:24.456Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

An important consideration that seems missing here is the increased search cost for other people trying to provide food for you, and the increased complexity of trying to coordinate on food for a large group of people, given a much more limited dietary range. 

In my experience, organizing events for EAs is easily 25% more difficult than organizing it for any other group I've organized events for, just due to the wide range of dietary preferences that is represented by people, and the reliable problems that show up if you try to somehow make vegan catering work . These problems have probably been around 30% of the stress that I've experienced in organizing events over the past 7 years, and I've consistently seen other organizers spend a substantial chunk of their organizing time trying to solve catering problems that I don't really think are a problem for most other communities.

In my personal life, I've also found it quite difficult to spontaneously decide to eat out, while still reliable filling dietary preferences, especially if the diet is further restricted by some food allergies, so the amount of eating out I've done with EAs is also a good bit lower because of the high prevalence of various dietary preferences. 

These tradeoffs might be worth it (though I am not currently particularly sold), but it's a tradeoff that I've rarely seen acknowledged, and that has made me sad (as someone who has spent a substantial chunk of the last 8 years of their life organizing EA events).

Replies from: Mauricio, rohinmshah
comment by Mauricio · 2022-02-14T07:13:30.245Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This does seem like a downside. Is it also a significant downside on the margin? I imagine (and have a little experience suggesting that) most of the logistical costs are in finding any good veg*n options for the event (rather than in scaling an order). That seems to suggest that, even if (say) 70% of veg*ns in the community started eating meat, that would only cut a minority of these costs. So this marginal cost of veg*nism may be smaller than it initially appears.

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2022-02-14T07:52:59.099Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think this is mostly true, though my experiences have been relatively different in organizing things for the rationality community, which is much closer to 30% vegan/vegetarian, instead of the 90% vegan/vegetarian I am used to in EA spaces,  which is at least some evidence that this is still a cost on the margin. 

My guess is de-facto that the vegetarians and vegans are still often disappointed with the food options when I organize things for the rationality community, even when I do my best, but 30% having that experience is still very different than 90% having that experience. I do have people reliably complain to me that the food is bad and doesn't have enough protein (and the caterers seem to never add enough protein, no matter how many times I ask). I think there is also some difference in expectations, where vegetarians and vegans expect an OK to mediocre option at an event that's not mostly vegetarians and vegans, but do seem to expect something really great if it's all vegetarian and vegan, though de-facto almost no caterer I found is actually much better when they just provide vegetarian/vegan food.

comment by Rohin Shah (rohinmshah) · 2022-02-14T08:25:17.979Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems kinda wild if this is the dominating factor. The number of meals provided through the year to a veg*n by other people is so, so much smaller than the number of meals that the veg*n provides for themselves. Both the veg*n and the large event organizers get "economies of scale".

(There's a different frame where costs on others should be more highly weighted than costs on oneself. I mostly don't buy this frame when we're talking about cost-benefit analysis of whether to be veg*n in the first place, for someone who is trying to use their time and money to do good in the world.)

(The tradeoff could still not be worth it, but then I think it would be even more not worth it considering just the cost to the veg*n themselves.)

Note: I personally avoid increasing search costs but that's just because it seems like an easy win on the margin. (Though it doesn't apply to meat, because as a lifelong vegetarian I basically don't parse meat as food, and after having tried it once, I would rather skip the meal than have a meat-based meal.)

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2022-02-15T03:14:38.342Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems kinda wild if this is the dominating factor. The number of meals provided through the year to a veg*n by other people is so, so much smaller than the number of meals that the veg*n provides for themselves. Both the veg*n and the large event organizers get "economies of scale".

Huh, I am surprised you say this. I have long provided daily lunches for my employees, and also provide lunches and dinners for anyone in the Lightcone Offices, so my current guess is that for a good chunk of the professional Berkeley community, ~half of meals are provided by other people. I do think most of those meals are easier and less one-off, which does decrease the cost, and enables more economies of scale, but they are still quite difficult to get right.

I do also think personal search costs are quite high for being vegan, and overall agree that it seems like they should be higher than the cost for event organizers. However, I do feel like given that we are already reasoning in a more deontological framework, I do think it makes a big difference on whether you are imposing a cost on other people, especially if we are implicitly enforcing a norm that you should eat vegan in EA contexts (which we are currently doing at EA events). 

Indeed, I know of many people who have told me that they don't like attending EA events because they expect the food there to not meet their needs, because they aren't vegan, and this seems pretty bad to me from a community-building perspective (I myself have also started bringing snacks and soylent-backups-bottles to EA events, because EA events consistently enough have failed to adequately provide food to me, and left me hungry, that I gave up). So there is also an additional cost that I wouldn't quite describe as a search cost, which comes from the additional (frequent) request to only serve vegan or vegetarian food, which makes finding food for people who aren't used to eating vegan/vegetarian much harder.

I do overall want to say that the rise of impossible-burgers has made this problem a bunch easier, and is one of the reasons why I am pretty excited about meat-alternatives. It does indeed feel that I can now kind of get an OK vegetarian meal that is acceptable to almost everyone by just replacing 30% of the food with impossible-meat patties, which tend to have enough protein and fit the expected flavor profile of non-vegetarians much better.

Replies from: rohinmshah
comment by Rohin Shah (rohinmshah) · 2022-02-15T12:45:55.093Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have long provided daily lunches for my employees, and also provide lunches and dinners for anyone in the Lightcone Offices, so my current guess is that for a good chunk of the professional Berkeley community, ~half of meals are provided by other people.

Lunches on weekdays is 5 meals a week out of 21 meals total (3 meals per day * 7 days per week), so it's still not half (though "so, so much smaller" is inaccurate for that setting). Still, many people don't get daily lunches, or get daily lunches from non-EA sources / large companies where you have ~zero impact on food choices at the margin.

Lunches and dinners at Lightcone / Constellation seems like a relatively unusual setup but I agree there you might want to take "increased search costs for others" as a relevant consideration.

I do feel like given that we are already reasoning in a more deontological framework

I wasn't doing that, and the OP only does that in one of their seven arguments. That being said, if I imagine what a deontologist would say about the matter, I mostly imagine them saying that there's no rule about whether it's good or bad to impose search costs on your employers. But I could easily be wrong about that; I'm not great at simulating deontology.

especially if we are implicitly enforcing a norm that you should eat vegan in EA contexts (which we are currently doing at EA events). 

I was thinking about whether one should personally become a veg*n (which I thought was the main thrust of the OP), rather than this sort of community-wide norm. Most of the rest of your comment seems to be about the community-wide norm; I agree that norm seems complicated (for the reasons you mention). I was mostly just responding to the "increased search costs" point.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-14T08:37:52.959Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the arguments that most animal products are bad at all in expectation to consume based on short term effects are weak, given the very uncertain effects on wild animals. Abstaining from some may mean replacing support for an active moral atrocity with a moral atrocity by omission (wild animal suffering).

The arguments are strongest (even if not very persuasive, as you note) against consuming chicken meat and eggs, farmed insects and maybe herbivorous farmed aquatic animals (other than bivalves), because of the higher density of direct suffering relative to externalities compared to other animal products.

So, if you're looking for something relatively flexible and without having to experiment with your health (much), maybe just omit these from your diet?

Replies from: Linch, Konstantin Pilz
comment by Linch · 2022-02-14T14:58:34.726Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Abstaining from some but not all animals seems maybe to cut against Richard's points about the value of Schilling fences [LW · GW]/quasi-deontological commitments against eating all animals.

On the other hard, I (and many other EAs I'm sure) develop moral identities as people who are capable of nuance and careful consequentialism on moral tradeoffs, so maybe having a very nuanced position on restrictions can help enforce this.

Personally I've been lactovegetarian for some years, with an exception for bivalves. I'm considering adding beef back to my diet for reasons raised above, but am unsure about both the object-level stance and also whether it's worth investing any more thought into this (relatively nonconsequential in the grand scheme of things) decision.

comment by Konstantin Pilz · 2022-02-15T07:51:39.328Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I currently don't really see a clear effect on wild animal welfare of meat consumption, could you go into that further?

To me it seems more like the kind of uncertainty to dismiss because it could go both ways.

Replies from: Ben_West, MichaelStJules
comment by Ben_West · 2022-02-16T01:30:57.605Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You may have already seen this, but Brian considers some of the evidence here.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-16T14:57:26.726Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also recommend the same article Ben West pointed out:

More recent discussion here with a few more articles: [EA · GW]

Basically, I think if you tried, you could come to an opinion on the sign of the effects on wild animals, and it would likely dominate the effects on farmed animals for specific animal products.

I also think just ignoring the effects on wild animals is unprincipled and hard to justify. Diet change has a large number of effects and arguments, some positive and some negative, and you have to weigh them all together, which is very hard to do. Why pick some specific subset of the effects, e.g. the effects on cows (if we're deciding product by product), and ignore the rest? We could also pick a subset that makes diet change look bad, and ignore the rest.

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2022-02-16T15:36:37.984Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also think just ignoring the effects on wild animals is unprincipled and hard to justify. Diet change has a large number of effects and arguments, some positive and some negative, and you have to weigh them all together, which is very hard to do. Why pick some specific subset of the effects, e.g. the effects on cows (if we're deciding product by product), and ignore the rest? We could also pick a subset that makes diet change look bad, and ignore the rest.

A concern is that people usually become vegetarians or vegans because the case for it seems pretty straightforward and robust, similar to the case for not participating in other activities that clearly and directly harm others. But if this is no longer the primary justification, it seems like there is no special reason for singling out dietary change for this kind of in-depth scrutiny, relative to other things that people do in the course of a day (such as walking, driving, sleeping, talking, etc.). So yeah, ignoring the effects of eating on wild animals is unprincipled, but so is ignoring the effects of any of these activities on different types of sentient beings. It seems that research effort devoted to exploring these different effects should be allocated according to explicit cost-effectiveness considerations or reliable heuristics, when in fact it looks like as EAs we are "privileging the dietary hypothesis" for contingent historical reasons.

Replies from: jackmalde
comment by Jack Malde (jackmalde) · 2022-02-17T17:19:29.433Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm sympathetic to strong longtermism which implies that that we can pretty much ignore short-run effects and instead only focus on far future effects when doing good. If strong longtermism is true, it isn't clear how wide the class of decision situations it applies to is, but I think it's plausible that dietary change is one of those decision situations that may be in scope. This is because there's a very plausible link between dietary change and moral circle expansion, which has been argued to be very important from a far future perspective.

So I tend to fall in the camp of thinking that ve*ism remains pretty robust even in the face of uncertainties over impact on wild animal populations. I'm not entirely certain about this though and would welcome thoughts.

Replies from: Brian_Tomasik
comment by Brian_Tomasik · 2022-03-31T00:14:37.750Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That makes sense, and I think many longtermist animal advocates roughly agree. One concern I have is about what kinds of moral ideas vegism is reinforcing. For example, vegism is normally strongly associated with environmentalism, so maybe it reinforces the idea of "leaving wild animals alone" or even trying to increase populations of wild animals via habitat restoration and rewilding.

That said, as Jacy Reese has argued, maybe most animal-like suffering in the far future will be created by humans rather than natural, in which case how people view wild-animal suffering could be less relevant than how they view human-inflicted suffering like that in factory farms. OTOH, I think there's still a question of whether creatures that inhabit virtual worlds or ancestor simulations of the far future would be seen as "wild" or as directly harmed by humans.

comment by Eli Rose (reallyeli) · 2022-02-15T05:14:03.104Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you think the signalling benefits from being veg*n are large, then it seems plausible to me that the signalling benefits from being a "scope-sensitive" or "evidence-sensitive" veg*n are larger, at least depending on your background culture and how high-bandwidth of a message you can send.

My family didn't ask any questions when I became vegetarian (lots of their friends are vegetarian), but the fact that I still eat oysters causes no end of questions. This leads to conversations about different types of animal sentience that feel more like they're actually about our treatment of animals than would have happened if I were a "normal" vegetarian.

I've had less opportunity to see the effects firsthand, but I think being averse to foods in rough proportion to their suffering per calorie, e.g. eating beef but avoiding eggs (and talking about why you do this, when asked) might have a similar result.

[This isn't to argue that the signalling benefits outweigh the direct harm.]

comment by Mauricio · 2022-02-14T07:20:15.881Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Psychological/epistemic consequences seem like another potentially big part of this choice that isn't discussed often (e.g., I haven't checked it, but this Wikipedia article summarizes experiments which seem to suggest that eating meat changes people's ethical and empirical beliefs about animals).

Replies from: eFish
comment by nil (eFish) · 2022-02-14T17:37:46.987Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA author Magnus Vinding has a blog post on such not-immediately-obvious reasons for avoiding consuming animal "products".

comment by Benjamin Stewart (BenStewart) · 2022-02-14T05:46:33.675Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with Luke that, for me at least, becoming veg*n has not detracted from my health or how I spend my time at all. 

In addition to the deontological argument, you could also consider a virtue ethics approach - thinking about the overall life pattern rather than discrete decisions. You care a lot about the suffering of animals. The virtue approach might ask: 
"How should someone who cares a lot about the suffering of animals live their daily life?" 

I find encouragement in the feeling that I am living more in harmony with my ethical beliefs, and that feeling goes beyond the results of the ethical calculus behind each discrete decision. 

comment by AndrewDoris · 2022-02-17T19:56:22.887Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Realizing I'm coming in late and many of my points have doubtlessly been addressed by other commenters, here are five thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of Eliezer Yudkowsky's 2015 criticism of using vague flow-through effects, with animal welfare cited specifically.  He noted that at the extremes, it seems like the sort of warm-glow reasoning someone might use to justify donating to your local performing arts center or running the 5k Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure - both of which are perfectly fine things to do, but not traditionally seen as EA, so much as indulging in causes you may be personally passionate about on the side. I don't agree with him that we should never consider possible flow-though effects if they seem exceptionally plausible and intuitive, and we're explicit about just how much value we expect will come from them. But my sense is that the indirect social signaling, health, and productivity effects of dietary choices are either a wash, or not something we can accurately predict (much less generalize) with the level of rigor  EA typically expects. For example, maybe reduce-atarianism and a carbon tax actually have better flow-through effects, whereas inspiring many more privileged elites to become absolutist veg*ns will actually so annoy working-class people that it (and EA as a whole) gets politicized, which actually entrenches pro-meat-eating opinions. You can hypothesize either way. Pet theories about unquantifiable spillover impact feel like something I encourage EAs to engage in personally - just so we don't all follow the same groupthink - but not something I'd want to elevate as the established "EA thing to do."
  2. Bolstering EA's moral authority by being ahead of the curve makes sense. But I think we already achieve this by funneling billions of dollars into advocacy to improve conditions on factory farms, other policy changes aiming to reduce suffering, and generally making a lot of noise about the problem. I'm very glad animal welfare is a major cause area within EA, and I donate to it. I'm even glad there are many vegetarians and vegans in EA, many of whom are more generous and disciplined than I am. But their marginal contribution to how much moral authority EA is perceived to have again seems pretty fuzzy to me.
  3. (You seem to already get this due to your second paragraph, but for lurkers I'll write it anyway): The community-level debate relates to concerns about moral demandingness in EA. Yes, veg*nism is a costly symbol. So is, say, donating 30% of your income or more. But we don't typically think building a high-trust environment requires that community norm. We recognize that there's a wide range of sacrifices we all might make every day, which might achieve an equally broad range of impacts. And what bonds us as EAs is our concern for the outputs - not for the inputs. (The one exception is arguably the 10% giving pledge - but to many people, that's considerably easier than going veg*n, and in any case not mandatory). A high-trust environment does not demand a level of sacrifice beyond what most people are comfortable with. Above a basic threshold, "giving better" is enough. 

    For reasons of culture,  socioeconomics, family, and even personal preferences, giving up meat is a bigger sacrifice to some people than to others. The same could be said about sacrificing additional consumption spending; or, sacrificing career aspirations that interest and fulfill you, to dive into AI or bio-risk instead. We arguably "should" do all of these things; and technically, yeah, you probably "should" go vegan. But optimizing all of it would exhaust mere mortals. So we all navigate these decisions in unique ways tailored to our personal life situations, with an eye to which of the infinite potential sacrifices get the biggest bang for the sacrificial buck. I think it's perfectly defensible for an EA to say that the amount of good I'd achieve by going veg*n is not nearly as high as the amount of good I'd achieve for a comparable sacrifice elsewhere, and therefore it is very low on my list of things I should prioritize to become a better altruist.
  4. The deontological argument is actually the one that most gives me pause. For example, everything I've said so far might also have applied to slavery in the 1800s. Thomas Jefferson might have said "well, who can tell what the flow-through effects of me freeing my slaves might be. Even if they're positive, I might achieve the same effects by just freeing my slaves upon my death. And I've already bolstered my moral authority by decrying slavery as evil, and advocating for its abolition. It's too morally demanding to expect me to forego the wealth of my massive estate while slavery remains." And today we would be appalled by this, even if he was better than many of his contemporaries.

    What weakens the deontological argument to me is our distance from the specific activity we actually object to. It is not evil to eat animals that are already dead; it is evil to torture animals on a factory farm. So in my analogy, meat-eaters are not Thomas Jefferson cracking the whip; they're more like someone in the north buying cotton clothing made with slave labor, which many abolitionists probably did. History is much kinder to these people, from the recognition that giving up cotton would have paled in comparison to the impact they had with their pen and voice. Likewise, my deontological intuitions just incline me to lobby for stronger laws around factory farming, and to castigate the people caging chickens 100x more than the people eating them.
  5. Altogether, my rule of thumb is this. Think about how much you'd personally pay for the purely selfish convenience and pleasure of NOT having to go veg*n. Then calculate whether this amount would save more animals if given to ACE recommended charities than it would for you to go veg*n. If it would, then instead of going veg*n,  give this amount (or at minimum, an amount tailored to offset your meat consumption) to ACE charities, above and beyond whatever giving pledges you've already committed to. Repeat as necessary until guilt subsides. 

    If your guilt never subsides, then incorporate this psychic distress into your estimate of how much you actually enjoy eating meat! Maybe the amount you're willing to pay is lower than you think, or even negative, and actually going veg*n is the right decision for you.
comment by lincolnq · 2022-02-14T21:58:52.129Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On a community level, even while I'm not vegan, I've long appreciated the norm of having community events be vegan. I want to be vegan but it's hard. At such events, it's easy, it's a nice on-ramp to the idea that I might someday actually be vegan.

That said, I think it makes sense to avoid being too prescriptive about what other people should do? Like, I think I prefer the community where your eating habits are a personal choice, versus the community where you might be ostracized if you eat the wrong thing.

strengthens your altruistic motivations

I have a bit of resonance on this front -- I think veganism gives me altruistic momentum on the good days. On bad days, I think I can tell it takes it instead (usually I just opt not to eat vegan on such days). I think the "bad days" are currently my biggest blocker to 100% veganism.

health effects

I think this problem is solved if you cook for yourself or are willing to eat the same thing every meal, and is extremely unsolved if you don't like cooking and crave variety. This feels like the biggest societal blocker to veganism.

comment by Nikola · 2022-02-16T02:16:24.904Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that it's relevant that, for some veg*ns, it would take more energy (emotional energy/willpower) not to be veg*n. For instance, having seen some documentaries, I am repulsed by the idea of eating meat due to the sheer emotional force of participating in the atrocities I saw. Maybe this is an indicator that I should spend more time trying to align my emotions to my ethical beliefs (which would, without the strong emotional force, point towards me eating animal products to save energy), but I'm not sure if that's worth the effort.

Maybe this implies that we shouldn't recommend documentaries on animal farming to EAs because it would lead to emotional bias against eating animal products? But I'm pretty sure seeing those documentaries expanded my moral circle in a very good way.

comment by Aaron_Scher · 2022-02-15T02:20:16.997Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this! Epistemic note: I am engaging in highly motivated reasoning and arguing for veg*n. 

  1. As BenStewart mentioned, virtue ethics seems relevant. I would similarly point to Kant’s moral imperative of universalizability: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Not engaging in moral atrocities is a case where we should follow such an ideal in my opinion. We should at least consider the implications under moral uncertainty and worldview diversification. 
  2. My journey in EA has in large part been a journey of “aligning my life and my choices to my values,” or trying to lead a more ethical life. To this end, it is fairly clear that being veg*n is the ethical thing to do relative to eating animal products (I would note I’m somewhere between vegan and vegetarian, and I think moving toward veganism is ethically better).
  3. The signaling effect of being veg*n seems huge at both an individual and community level. As Luke Freeman mentioned, it would be hard to take EA seriously if we were less veg*n than average. Personally, I would likely not be in EA if being veg*n wasn’t relatively normal. This was a signal to me that these people really care and aren’t just in it when it’s convenient for them. This point seems pretty important and one of the things that hopefully sets EA apart from other communities oriented around doing good. I want to call back Ben Kuhn’s idea from 2013 [LW · GW] of trying vs. pretending to try in terms of EA:

“A lot of effective altruists still end up satisficing—finding actions that are on their face acceptable under core EA standards and then picking those which seem appealing because of other essentially random factors.”

3.5. At an individual level, when I tell people about Intro to EA seminars I can say things like “In Week 3 we read about expanding our moral consideration and animal welfare. I realized that I wasn’t giving animals the moral consideration I think they deserve, and now I try to eat fewer animal products to align my values and my actions.” (I’ve never said it this eloquently). While I haven’t empirically tested it, people seem to like anecdotes like this. 

4. I think as a community we’re asking for a lot of trust; something like “we want to align AI to not kill us all, and nobody else is doing it, so you have to trust us to do it.” Maybe this is an argument for hedging under moral uncertainty, or similarly trying to be less radical. I feel like an EA that is mostly veg*n is less radical than one with no veg*ns due to some of the other ethical claims we make (e.g., strong longtermism). Being less radical while still upholding our values sounds like a  reasonable spot to be in when (implicitly) asking for the reigns to the future.

4.5 In this awesome paper, Evan Williams argues that hedging against individual possible moral catastrophes is quite difficult. In this case, it appears to me that we can still hedge here, and we should, given our position of influence. 

5. Intuitively, diversifying across a range of activities that might be valuable seems useful. So having some things that are 0.01% chance of avoiding x-risk, some things that are 10% chance of reducing animal suffering, some things that are 95% chance of reducing malaria deaths, and 50% chance of reducing the number of animals suffering on factory farms. I need to write out my thoughts on this in more detail, but I think it’s useful to diversify across {chance of having any impact at all}, and not eating animals is a place where we can be pretty sure we’re having an impact in the long term. 

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-15T04:41:39.963Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On 5, diet change seems very very unlikely to make a difference on an individual level, because of how large the markets are. I think we're (possibly much) more likely to make a difference through careers and donations. Maybe we have more robust estimates of the expected effects of diet (on farmed animals, at least) than these other things, though. Diversification/hedging seems valuable to me with deep uncertainty or moral uncertainty.

comment by Henry Howard · 2022-02-16T22:27:02.213Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Don't forget the benefits of normalising vegetarianism/veganism for the people around you. This makes the impact of being vegetarian/vegan bigger than just the number of chickens you don't eat.

My sister has been vegetarian since she was 6 and has passively inspired many of the rest of our family to either become vegetarian/vegan or at least reduce our meat consumption. I have in turn inspired other people to make changes. My sister's impact is much more than just the animals she hasn't eaten.

I think we tend to forget that large-scale social changes result from lots of people making "insignificant" individual choices which gently pressure others to change. It's a snowball effect  that is hard to measure and predict, so it's easy to feel like our personal choices don't matter.

comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2022-02-18T21:22:55.418Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I generally see my own vegetarianism as a utilitarian virtue that I've cultivated. It feels mostly costless to me now; in fact I feel better doing it than not. I think we should generally try to cultivate such virtues that align with impactful action, but also agree that going veg*n may not be equally effective on the margin for everyone (for a variety of reasons). Still, I'd feel most proud of being in a movement where people didn't simply accept the psychological costs of some altruistic action, but tried to align their personal utility function more with the universe's (which is what I mean by "utilitarian virtue").

(This is not to say that you personally are "simply accepting" this; I know you to be a very deliberate and thoughtful person. I am just uncomfortable with community members consistently resolving this question on first-order considerations of the psychological pleasure of veg*nism without considering the second-order question of whether the first-order is malleable.)

(Also agree with some of the other comments complicating the CEA of veg*nism on wild animal welfare grounds)

comment by MaxRa · 2022-02-14T09:23:08.157Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good points, thanks for writing them up. Maybe also worth considering:

  • increased demand for plant-based alternatives -> more and higher quality supply -> more people finding it easier to replace meat
  • one might compare analogue situations in history and wonder if not benefitting from something one considers immoral even though the marginal effect of it is negligible
    • I suppose slavery, maybe some situations where man benefitted from unequal rights for women?
Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2022-02-14T15:19:22.844Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The research I've read from EAs* on slavery(here, here [EA · GW]) actually shifted me somewhat against personal dietary moral commitments as an important route to change.

Basically, it seems like the equivalent to veganism (fully abstaining from buying anything as a result of slave-produced labor) never really took off, despite substantial effort from activists, whereas technological shifts that made slavery less profitable(?) and systematic policy changes on the level of "the slave trade is immoral, let's ban it" were much more influential in comparison.

*For better or worse, I've never prioritized enough time to read the primary sources 

Replies from: MaxRa, MaxRa, AppliedDivinityStudies
comment by MaxRa · 2022-02-14T16:28:35.803Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Skimming the  article from Mauricio, I spotted another possible argument for exchanging as much meat products as possible for plant-based alternatives.

Perhaps wealthy Britons identified with slave owners more easily than with slave traders, and emancipation likely seemed more threatening to their business interests.

The more and sooner business interests are okay with stronger animal welfare protection because they already are heavily invested in plant-based alternatives, the less resistance systemic changes will face in the future.

comment by MaxRa · 2022-02-14T16:28:18.976Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the pointers, I read the report from Mauricio and really liked it. 

I was actually imagining people freeing their slaves instead of trying to avoid products whose production involved slave labour, thanks for spelling out the better analogy. The problem with this analogy is, though, that I imagine it to be much more difficult (less variety of products available, less information about production) and less visible/symbolic (it's somewhat less direct than eating animals, and probably hard to tell for onlookers whether an agricultural ingredient came from a place with slaves).

comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2022-02-23T01:17:16.648Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It sounds wild, but AFAIK, the cotton gin and maybe some other forms of automation actually made slavery more profitable! 

From Wikipedia:
> Whitney's gin made cotton farming more profitable, so plantation owners expanded their plantations and used more slaves to pick the cotton. Whitney never invented a machine to harvest cotton, it still had to be picked by hand. The invention has thus been identified as an inadvertent contributing factor to the outbreak of the American Civil War.


comment by Denis Drescher (Telofy) · 2022-02-14T23:16:55.233Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’ve written about this topic in “Levels of Moral Cooperation.”

What level of cooperation with other activists or general agenty people is optimal? Everyone needs to “pick their battles” to maximize their impact and stay sane, but what does it look like in practice when you interact with those who’ve picked different “battles”? In this article I sketch some initial ideas I’ve had and hope to encourage others to test and refine them. There’s a lot of potential for someone with more knowledge of game theory to make them greatly more rigorous, nuanced, and reliable.

The post exceeded my timebox for it, so I’m a bit unhappy with its structure. Sorry about that.

The general idea is that:

  1. There are a lot of moral entrepreneurs driving social change that we agree with.
  2. They are successful to different degrees in different social bubbles.
  3. There are thresholds that are hard to exceed, but above which social pressures lead to rapid success.

I wanted to develop a general framework that can be applied to all sorts of valuable social change, such as antispeciesism, antiracism, antisubstratism, antisexism, antiageism, etc. Hence my post covers a lot more details and edge cases. Here I’ll try to apply it to this case.

Maybe someone, a parent, has internalized the phrase “Spare the rod; spoil the child.” The child is dear to them and has 80+ years to live, so they don’t want to risk spoiling all of that (which parallels the health argument above). (They don’t know about the risks of traumatizing their child for life, just as meats can also have negative health effects.) Given their limited epistemic situation, the decision can look broadly similar to the one related to veganism.

Another guideline is to not walk on grass because it risks crushing like a dozen or so of invertebrates with every step. Or not living in cities that use surface water for the freshwater supply, because the filtration process kills uncounted numbers of beings. But maybe some great networking opportunity is tied to hikes across meadows or to that city with surface water.

To me the great difference is that I live in a community of friends and relatives that is fully – for all I know – strongly against beating children. The norm is so strong that even if someone violated it, it would backfire on them and not meaningfully weaken the norm. I treat this norm as a hard rule, but really I rarely think about it because it’s so universally endorsed in my circles.

I’m also in a community that is almost completely vegn, but not quite to the same extend that it is against violence against children, also because of nonvegan influences from the outside. I treat the vegn norm as a hard rule particularly because it seems somewhat fragile to me, like a tiny budding flower.

I’m also in a community that generally gets caring about invertebrates and has read some Brian Tomasik, but that doesn’t usually, with some exceptions, take care not to use surface water or not to step on grass. So I don’t treat this as a hard rule because I’m not optimistic (yet) that I can spread it up to its threshold. That can change though. (Your milage may vary if you’re particularly influential, high-status, charismatic, etc.)

So particularly when I feel that something is close to its threshold, from one side or the other, I take care to take into account in my cost-benefit calculation not only the costs and benefits that are mediated through me but also the costs and benefits that spreading the norm has.

And if in doubt I rather overestimate the closeness to the threshold since the societal costs can be great, have great variance, and are hard to know, but my personal costs are usually quite low variance and relatively well knowable. So you could say that I try to be at least a bit better than what I think the norm is, for all norms around me.

comment by Derek Shiller · 2022-02-14T18:00:51.666Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Insofar as we are all imperfect and have to figure out which ways to prioritize improving on, it isn't obvious that we should treat veganism as a priority. That said, I think there is an important difference between what it makes sense to do and how it makes sense to feel. It makes sense to feel horrified by factory farming and disgusted by factory farmed meat if you care about the suffering of animals. It makes sense to respond to suffering inflicted on your behalf with sadness and regret.

Effective altruists should generally be vegan, not (just) because it is the right thing to do, but because that behavior follows naturally from the right way to feel. This is not to say that you should try to change how you feel if you're not inclined to at least a little sadness at the sight of a dead chicken's body on your plate, but something has gone wrong.

comment by JamieWoodhouse · 2022-02-21T22:47:05.611Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As in human ethics, the perspective of the victims cuts through this topic pretty cleanly for me.

As a thought experiment, imagine writing an article considering these sorts of nuances re: a human ethics topic where individuals are needlessly being harmed & killed for the pleasure of others.

comment by nonn · 2022-02-16T00:14:00.565Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

An argument against that doesn't seem directly considered here: veganism might turn some high-potential people off without compensatory benefits, and very high base rates of non-veganism (~99% of western people are non-vegan IIRC) means this may matter even on relatively marginal effects.

Obviously many things can be mitigated significantly by being kind/accommodating (though at some level there's a little remaining implied "you are doing bad"). But even accounting for that, a few things remain despite accommodating. E.g.

  • People feel can vaguely outgroupy because most core EAs in many groups are vegan, & most new people will feel slightly awkward about that, which affects likely comfort & future involvement in EA spaces
  • On the margin, promising people may not repeatedly come to events that would expose them to EA ideas because they don't like the food (empirically this was a fairly common complaint at newbie events in my university). E.g. it may not be filling if you don't like tofu variants, which a significant fraction of the population doesn't
  • Probably more things. Diet & dinners are fairly central to people's social lives, so I'd expect other effects too.

And to be clear, there are plausible compensatory benefits that you highlight. Though they're not direct effects, so I wonder if they could be gotten in other ways without the possible downsides

Replies from: Hank_B
comment by Hank_B · 2022-02-16T15:59:36.704Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This seems at least a bit different from going veg*n in "private" so to speak. If you stop eating meat and tell no-one not immediately impacted by this choice, why would that lead to scaring off people from EA?


Granted, you seem to be talking about a large portion of EAs being veg*n, a large enough portion that meat is not served at the events and a potential new-comer would feel like the only omnivore there. I think this cuts against EA organizations advocating for veg*nism and towards providing non-veg*n food at EA events, but not necessarily against one's own personal consumption choices.

comment by Question Mark · 2022-02-14T08:22:37.188Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Getting people to eat more beef/dairy and less chicken/fish is one animal welfare strategy that EAs should consider promoting. Since cows are large, it takes fewer animals to produce a single unit of food. Brian Tomasik compiled this list of the amount of suffering generated by different animal foods, and beef/dairy are ranked the lowest. Vitalik Buterin has argued that eating only cow products may be 99% as good as veganism. In addition to this, getting people to eat only beef/dairy may have more mass appeal. Few people are willing to become vegan, but far more people may be willing to give up animal products with the exception of beef/dairy.

Replies from: MichaelPlant
comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-14T10:03:35.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ah, but switching from chickens and fish to beef and dairy is much worse with respect to CO2 emissions. I'm really not sure how to trade these off against each other (for any population ethical framework one might decide to use).

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn, MichaelPlant
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2022-02-14T21:57:31.944Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think to a first approximation eating fish and chicken is much worse than eating beef - the CO2 from the beef equivalent to replacing one chicken or fish is unlikely to lead to anywhere near the suffering the chicken or fish experience. 1kg of beef (approx weight of one chicken or fish) ~100kg CO2e; 100GtC extra emissions would have to do damage equivalent to 1 trillion units of factory farmed chicken / fish lives worth of suffering for it to be comparable. This doesn't seem likely to me (but I guess it plausibly could be if you think that worst case climate scenarios are likely and the damage lasts 100s or 1000s of years).

Replies from: MichaelPlant, tylermaule
comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-15T16:19:21.744Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Intuitively I agree with you for farmed chicken and farmed fish vs beef. I'm just not actually sure how to do the comparisons.

For wild fish matters may differ because it's not obvious what the welfare and CO2 impacts of eating them are but FWIW I haven't looked into this closely

comment by tylermaule · 2022-02-15T03:16:18.437Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

See also

Offsetting the carbon cost of going from an all-chicken diet to an all-beef diet would cost $22 per year, or about 5 cents per beef-based meal. Since you would be saving 60 chickens, this is three chickens saved per dollar, or one chicken per thirty cents. A factory farmed chicken lives about thirty days, usually in extreme suffering. So if you value preventing one day of suffering by one chicken at one cent, this is a good deal.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2022-02-15T16:14:37.732Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Really not sure why my comment got such a mix of upvotes and downvotes... I'd be grateful if a downvoter could explain what this didn't like about it.

comment by Peter (Peter Gebauer) · 2022-02-14T05:38:59.484Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've thought about a lot of this stuff too, so I understand how the value can seem uncertain. These are some reasons I became [more] vegan. 
1. I don't participate in factory farming suffering - any good impact is good to me, a penny saved is a penny earned. Even a small impact matters to me. 
2. I avoid taking lives 
3. I feel better - probably because of eating healthier and maybe also more in control of my decisions. A mostly or entirely vegan diet might also just be healthier for some reason. Chimps and Bonobos are our closest relatives and their diets are 95% vegan or more, so maybe that means something? I digress. 
4. I eat healthier - most unhealthy food I am exposed to is nonvegan. If it's disqualified by being nonvegan it eliminates a lot of unhealthy food and a lot of wasted thinking about eating it or not. I don't feel like I'm missing out because it's not an option and not in alignment with how I want to live and feel. 
5. I build up discipline, a great transferable habit. Resisting convenience is a good skill because many convenient or easy things are bad. 
6. I show other people being vegan is simple, beneficial, and enjoyable. People I know are more curious about becoming vegan now than when they didn't know anyone. 
7. I shrink my carbon footprint. 

I think personal decisions matter and calculations claiming they are low impact generally miss some of the social nature of our decisions. When millions of people do something, it has a big effect. Even one person doing something has an effect. But if we only look at one person isolated from any social context, we would never think about the spillover effects and multipliers. For example, leaving a couple pieces of trash in a park makes other people more likely to do the same. We have to start somewhere because change doesn't usually pop into existence all across society suddenly. Big shifts are often gradual until they reach tipping points. We need demand for a market to grow and mature. 

It seems like a pretty low cost thing to do for those benefits. It's hard for me to see how becoming vegan would prevent most people from doing other things. A few hours of research on what to eat to get a balanced diet was all it took for me. But maybe I am an outlier. Though I think we're often far more flexible in our behavior than we realize. Habits are very powerful. Novel becomes normal very quickly. So it seems to me like becoming more vegan would be either neutral or beneficial for most people.  

comment by sapphire (deluks917) · 2022-03-01T05:52:44.198Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Effective altruists talk a lot about cooperation but I actually think its sort of pathologically uncooperative to eat meat. It seems pretty hard to dismiss the arguments for veganism. Lots of provably well informed EAs (in the sense they could score well on a test of EA knowledge) are going to settle on 'dont personally participate in enormous moral outrages'. Why would you personally make the problem worse? And make the social situation worse for vegan EAs. It's a very serious breach of solidarity. (Though maybe using the term solidarity outs me as a leftie)

comment by KielySmith · 2022-03-06T22:48:41.583Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Peter Singer's 1980 paper  Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism might answer your concerns. Here's a relevant quote from the conclusion of his paper:

"I advocate vegetarianism as something which "underpins, makes consistent, and gives meaning to all our other activities on behalf of animals" (Animal Liberation, p. I71). I remain convinced that for those concerned to change the situation of animals in our society, vegetarianism is of real practical importance. It provides an irrefutable answer to the oft-repeated claim that we need factory farms to feed our growing population. It allows the animal welfare campaigner to defeat ad hominem attacks, for instance: 'How can you object to killing seals when you eat pigs and calves?' By eliminating one's personal involvement in the production of animals for food, it makes it easier to take a detached view of the animal industry, and to avoid compromising the interests of the animals with one's own interest as a consumer of animals. Calling on the public not to buy the produce of factory farms can be an important part of a campaign against factory farming. It holds out a threatening prospect to farmers-one which is beginning to be noticed in farming magazines-and it enables those who support the campaign against factory farming to make a personal commitment which goes beyond signing petitions and writing letters to their elected representatives. One cannot convincingly ask others to do this if one does not do it oneself. (Unless one eats animal flesh in secret-which hardly seems worth the hypocrisy and risk of discovery involved.)

Finally, becoming a vegetarian is a way of attesting to the depth and sincerity of one's belief in the wrongness of what we are doing to animals. Perhaps in a society of sophisticated philosophers there would be no need to attest to one's sincerity in this way, because sophisticated philosophers would understand that one can sincerely oppose the exploitation of animals in factory farms while continuing to buy and enjoy the product of these very farms. But to most of the members of our society this would mean, as it seemed to Oliver Goldsmith's fictitious Chinese traveler, a "strange contrariety of conduct."

comment by ludwigbald · 2022-02-19T11:38:01.037Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For me, having been a strict vegetarian since primary school, I'd have to consider the inverse question: As an EA, should I start eating meat?

Eating meat seems to involve a lot of hassle. I'd have to learn a lot about different types of meat, where to buy them, how to prepare them, figure out what I like and so on. Right now, I just don't perceive meat as food, and the thought of eating it feels kind of gross because of the killing and mess involved.

I would lose a bit of status among my green friends, and people would perceive me as morally inconsistent.

On the other hand, I see a few benefits to eating meat. In other countries, even here in Europe, it's very much the norm to eat meat, and much harder to eat vegetarian. Travelling there is always a bit of an extra hassle for me.
There might be a health benefit, though I'm not really sure what to expect here.

I guess the synthesis here is that I should sometimes eat meat for convenience, e.g. when travelling, but be sure to label it as an exception, so I don't lose my values.

Replies from: Larks
comment by Larks · 2022-02-20T06:40:18.440Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Eating meat seems to involve a lot of hassle. I'd have to learn a lot about different types of meat, where to buy them, how to prepare them, figure out what I like and so on.

A lot of omnivores don't know all these things! Many people eat meat at restaurants, or buy it pre-cooked, or are served it by friends and family, and basically only eat a very small number of types (e.g. chicken + beef). A simple rule like 'cooked chicken is probably fine' is likely to dramatically expand your culinary options..

This is not to say that the other arguments (ethical + personal) against might not be significant or even decisive. But I would be very surprised if the issue was sufficiently finely balanced that the knowledge required to eat meat ended up making the difference.

comment by Jack R (JackRyan) · 2022-02-14T17:58:10.776Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are some plausible stories for how being vegan makes the far-future non-trivially better? My bar here is something like "me being vegan is 1/1000th as impactful as working on a biosecurity project for my entire career," so e.g. I claim that being vegan wastes something like 0.1% of EA's time (which is an underestimate for me at least -- I often spend 10s of counterfactual minutes searching for meatless food; for reference, 1/1000th of waking hours for seven days is about seven minutes).

Is this story the reason you are vegan?

Replies from: richard_ngo
comment by richard_ngo · 2022-02-14T20:17:06.151Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Was this meant to be in reply to another comment?

Replies from: JackRyan
comment by Jack R (JackRyan) · 2022-02-18T17:19:30.960Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

No--and when I wrote it, I meant to direct it at anyone involved in the comments discussion. I probably should have made that clearer in the comment. Also, I probably should have read all of the comments before commenting (e.g. are you referring to some comment thread that it seemed like I was replying to?), but am time-limited.

Also, for more context, I wrote this comment because I felt concerned about bottom-line/motivated reasoning causing people to apply the sorts of arguments for action that they don't apply elsewhere to argue for veganism, and I felt compelled to prompt anyone part of this discussion with the sort of calculation that I thought longtermists generally thought was best to use when choosing their actions. 

comment by Gavin (technicalities) · 2022-02-14T02:50:19.951Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Links are all borked, they've still got your Blogger previews.

Replies from: richard_ngo
comment by richard_ngo · 2022-02-14T06:27:46.105Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ty, fixed.

comment by Evan R. Murphy · 2022-02-19T06:41:23.384Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fourthly, I am kinda worried about health effects, especially on short-to-medium-term energy levels.

I've been mostly (~98%) vegan since 2013. This concern really surprised me, because the health benefits of eating plant based are clearly extraordinary in my view. It was actually the primary driver for me going from vegetarian to vegan, with concern for the farmed animals growing later.

I would say that the very short term effects (1-2 weeks) can be disruptive as the bacteria in your gut become re-selected from bacteria that feed on meat or dairy to ones that feed on fibrous foods - veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts etc. But the 2-weeks-to-rest-of-life health benefits are massive. Ranging from higher energy levels to prevention of many kinds of diseases, greatly lower risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, easier to lose/maintain weight... the list goes on. It does require actually eating more cruciferous and other veg, berries and other fruits, legumes, spices to etc. though and not just being a junk food vegan who eats cookies and crackers all the time. And you do need to supplement with vitamin B12 because this essential nutrient gets stripped from the fruits and veg when we wash them (and it is a good idea to still wash them).

Highly recommend exploring Dr. Michael Greger's work ( if anyone is curious about health questions around plant-based/vegan diet. He's an evidence-based/altruistic M.D. nutritionist and does great work separating out the quality nutrition research from ones with methodological errors, bias from funding sources etc. (I am in no way affiliated and his work as I understand it is not for profit.)

comment by MatthewDahlhausen · 2022-02-16T17:15:41.910Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems like many of the disagreements in the comments comes from disagreements about the moral status of animals.

In an expected value calculation, it is fine to offset greenhouse gas emissions with true counterfactual offsets because there isn't a clear case of one moral actor causing harm to a moral patient, and the harm can be completely compensated for.  But most people would object to the idea of killing someone, selling their organs on the black market, and then donating the money to prevent other people from dying from easily preventable diseases.  Here there is a clear case of a specific moral actor causing specific, serious harm to a moral patient.  The harm can't be undone.  While the first greenhouse gas example doesn't have a clear justice angle, the second organ harvesting one does.

Vegans tend to see a strong justice case involved when eating animals - there is clearly a specific moral patient being harmed (eaten).  Non-vegans may grant that animals can suffer, but don't fully elevate them to a moral status where justice concerns matter.  If there isn't a justice angle, then expected value logic applies and the desire to reduce suffering can be fluidly traded off against perceived inconvenience.  The moral severity of taking a life doesn't register.

The exclusion of justice considerations is speciesist (, and we should be cautious about denying full moral consideration simply based on species membership.  If we are broadly worried about reducing suffering and moral circle expansion, keeping justice concerns for animals at the forefront of conversations about eating meat is important.

Replies from: MichaelStJules, BlessedApple
comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-02-16T19:09:22.969Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Vegans tend to see a strong justice case involved when eating animals - there is clearly a specific moral patient being harmed (eaten).

But being eaten is not harmful for an already dead animal, it's the life and killing before, which your current purchase almost certainly didn't affect, unless you're buying live animals or the animals are slaughtered at your request for your purchase. Your purchasing behaviour mostly affects animals not yet born in expectation (although with very low probability does it affect any at all). You could in principle offset your impact on the market before the market could take your individual purchasing behaviour into account separately from things you do which reduce consumption in others. For example, instead abstaining from a specific animal product in one instance, you convince someone else in the same region to do so, if they wouldn't have otherwise. This kind of offsetting seems much harder and expensive, though, since it needs to be particularly targeted.

comment by BlessedApple · 2022-02-20T13:02:08.557Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have vegan friend who does not eat meat but eats seafood like fish/calamari. Her logic I still do not understand tbh 

comment by Hank_B · 2022-02-16T15:54:04.597Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I find the argument for veg*nism based on expected value fairly compelling. In a developed nation, factory farming is dominant. In a factory farm, it seems like ~all animals have net negative lives. Not eating animal products reduces demand for those animal products, leading to less animals with net negative lives being raised on factory farms.


You say that this value isn't very big, and perhaps it isn't. But neither is the cost? Veg*n food in my experience is as healthy, potentially cheaper, and similarly effortful to make as home-cooked non-veg*n food. 


You mention moral licensing. My prior for social science research being true is pretty low so I'd tend to think this effect is small or non-existent. A 5-second google search revealed a meta-analysis of ~90 studies studying ~7000 participants, only including those with a control. They found the magnitude of the effect to be a Cohen's d of .31 which is small. Also unpublished studies had smaller effect sizes than published ones, which makes me more skeptical. 


Informal citation: A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing. Irene Blanken et al. 2015.


You also mention health/energy costs. As far as I know, the consensus is that well-planned diets whether veg*n or not are all healthy, with some (crappy? I haven't looked into it) research that veganism is good for you. Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina gives this conclusion and seems to be right. I hope someone will tell me if this opinion about health is wrong though!

Replies from: DavidBernard
comment by David Rhys Bernard (DavidBernard) · 2022-02-16T19:20:11.687Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Side note: a Cohen's d of .31 is not small. My opinion is that the rules of thumb used to interpret effect sizes in psychology are messed up, because so much p-hacking in the past produced way overinflated effect sizes. Regardless, 0.3 is typically seen as a moderate effect size. A 0.3 standard deviation increase in IQ would be 4.5 points which would lead to economically meaningful differences in income.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2022-03-06T16:04:18.938Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On the signaling value of vegetarianism/veganism, this recent post by Holly Elmore is relevant:

We all hate virtue signaling, right? Even “virtue” itself has taken on a negative connotation. When we’re too preoccupied with how we appear to others, or even too preoccupied with being virtuous, it makes us inflexible and puts us out of touch with our real values and goals.

But I believe the pendulum has swung too far. I don’t care to defend empty “cheap talk” signals, but the best virtue signals offer some proof of their claim by being difficult to fake. Maybe, like being vegan, they take a great deal of forethought, awareness, and require regular social sacrifices. Being vegan proves dedication to a cause like animal rights or environmentalism proportional to the level of sacrifice required. The virtuous sacrifice of being vegan isn’t what makes veganism good for the animals or the environment, but it is a costly signal of character traits associated with the ability to make such a sacrifice, which may include commitment, being deeply bought into the cause such that the sacrifice becomes easier than it would be for other people, conscientiousness, gentleness, etc. Out of your commitment to doing the most good possible, you may notice that veganism isn’t actually the best way to help animals for a lot of people. I believe this represents a step forward for helping animals, but one problem is that now it’s much easier to hide lack of virtuous character traits from measurement. It’s harder to know where the lines are or how to track the character of the people you may one day have to decide to trust or not to trust, and it’s harder to be accountable to yourself.

comment by Karthik Sekar · 2022-02-15T14:49:12.197Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Richard, I recently wrote a post that tackles the concern on whether personal choice on veganism can have meaningful consequences: [EA · GW]

Short answer, yes. Personal choices can help shift the S-curve for the transition, which has huge consequences. 

comment by MattBall · 2022-02-16T15:37:09.031Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Leave it to EAs to spend endless words rationalizing something they want / rationalizing away something that is "inconvenient."

Replies from: Linch, Hank_B
comment by Linch · 2022-02-16T16:36:03.199Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Which side is the inconvenient side here? 

comment by Hank_B · 2022-02-16T16:01:45.087Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is pretty amusing Matt, unsure why you've been down-voted here. More seriously, rationalization of one's preferences is a real trap!

Replies from: Charles He
comment by Charles He · 2022-02-16T18:05:37.167Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The comment is condescending and devalues the opinions of a group of talented people who have almost universally expressed value in animal welfare.

An underlying reason for people who disagree with you here is that they feel some views are imposed unfairly and dogmatically, without regard to impact. Yet, they are still engaged and communicating honestly.

Instead of taking this chance to listen and weigh their perspective (because, I don't know, they are brilliant EAs who built up longtermist infrastructure in the Bay Area and influence generations of future EAs) a sneering, negative attitude would be inexplicably counterproductive, pretty much snatching defeat from this opportunity.