Reasons to eat meat

post by kbog · 2019-04-21T20:37:51.671Z · EA · GW · 42 comments

Many Effective Altruists advocate vegetarianism or veganism. Eating and purchasing meat does increase the production of meat, so it contributes to animal suffering. However, in this post I will give some general reasons to eat meat, including factory farmed meat.

With all these reasons, it's clear that eating meat is often a good thing to do. Should we then consider whether or not to eat meat at each meal? No, that would be too stressful. Who could possibly weigh and calculate what to pick for each meal? Instead, we should pick a proportion of our meals where we will avoid meat, and stick to that as a rule. I think that 10% is a good amount, it is a nice round number with some traditional precedent. Thus, I eat vegan food for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, which is 10% of my meals. Otherwise I stick to my usual diet, including factory-farmed meat.

"What is this nonsense?" some of you may be thinking. Well, this post is satire. Some of these reasons are good and some of them are bad, I'll let you figure out which is which. But all are reasons that I have seen EAs give to defend expenses on luxury items and ineffective charities. Yet some EAs also push a moral obligation for veganism. My point is this: it's inconsistent to have a rule for veganism and dismiss these sorts of complaints if you also have such a meek view of obligations to donate to charity. Of course two cases are never exactly analogous. But if anything, I'd say that the cost/benefit ratio of giving more to effective charity is better than the cost/benefit ratio of giving up meat. Therefore, for the purposes of improving our impact, either we should be vegan and donate scrupulously to charity or we should just donate scrupulously to charity. It's not the case that we should be vegan yet we don't need to donate scrupulously to charity.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-04-21T21:57:24.497Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This post tickled my brain in a funny/good way, so thanks for that. I'm still left a little dumbfounded. My thought is if you think of taking EA actions from a units-of-good-accomplished-per-unit-of-personal-sacrifice perspective, donating 10% of my income and giving up meat feel about equally hard to me (and I do both), though I imagine this feels very different for other people and I don't know what norms are appropriate to make/enforce around how much and what kinds of sacrifices people should make.

Replies from: Raemon, Khorton
comment by Raemon · 2019-04-23T00:16:32.935Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW I'm currently reducetarian (formally vegetarian), and currently give around 2% of my income. I don't give more because I don't think it's the strategically correct choice for me at the moment. In the past I've given 10%.

But, I consider it *way* easier to give 10% of my income than to change my diet. My income has fluctuated from 50k to 90k and back and not really changed my lifestyle all that much. Changing my donations requires basically a one time change to a monthly auto-payment thingy. Changing my diet requires continuous willpower.

Replies from: Greg_Colbourn
comment by Greg_Colbourn · 2019-04-29T13:20:26.620Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The trick to not making it require continuous willpower is to not think of the stuff you're not meant to be eating as an option. Pre-committing to not considering it as food means you don't have to exercise willpower at every meal (this is similar to not agonising over every purchase once you've set a donation budget, although admittedly that is easier given the auto-payment thingy).

Also, If you're not fussy about food, being vegan is, in a way, simpler and easier when eating out, as often you only have one option to choose from (although this is less true now).

comment by Khorton · 2019-04-22T08:01:34.279Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree giving up meat seems around as hard as donating 10%. Going vegan seems much harder again, though - maybe as hard as giving 20% or 25%?

(I currently eat meat. I occasionally go vegetarian for a month at a time, but have never gone vegan.)

Replies from: Peter_Hurford
comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-04-22T15:48:57.985Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Going vegan seems much harder again, though - maybe as hard as giving 20% or 25%?

I agree that this also feels the same to me (I give ~20% but I'm not vegan). Though, again, probably feels much different to other people.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-04-23T00:06:03.884Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure I've ever seen someone in EA who both:

a) Wanted everyone to be vegan and was actively pushy/bothersome toward people who didn't do this

b) Took a fairly permissive stance on luxury/ineffective charity spending

Mostly, this is because I haven't seen a lot of people who fit (a) at all. I have friends who are vegan, donate to animal causes, and are pretty certain that veganism is the "right" thing to do, but they don't judge me too harshly for eating cheese.

The most common position I'm aware of among the most involved people in EA is "try to avoid judging people harshly if they're doing some good things and moving in the right direction, even if they could do better", which they apply to both donations and veganism (if they care about animal causes).

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2019-04-30T04:06:17.841Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Very few people in EA are actively pushy/bothersome about anything. Strong claims about the moral importance and social viability of vegetarian/vegan diets are the target here, not judging people harshly.

comment by Holly_Elmore · 2019-04-29T02:09:15.090Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think reducetarianism is really important and not satireworthy. I am vegan because I don't want to consume slaughtered animals period. Although I think changing norms is the most important effect of veganism, my (small) donations arguably do more to directly combat factory farming. I couldn't eat meat knowing what it is, and it would require me to numb my morality to try, but if someone can and has to try really hard to reduce meat consumption, I think they should do as much as they can and not feel too bad.

Ultimately, as much as this goes against my instincts, eating meat is a sin that's comparable to all the other sins that a person can't fully eliminate from their life. It's a priority issue for me, but I believe that a person could do as much or more good than me by working on different issues and still eating meat.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-04-24T03:26:31.450Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I know the post is satirical, but I think it's worth pointing out that ego depletion, the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up, is on shaky ground, i.e. the effect was not replicated in a few meta-analyses, although an older meta-analysis did replicate it.

Replies from: kbog, tae
comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T21:15:22.829Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, yes I consider it a bit of a canard.

comment by tae · 2019-04-25T18:02:28.994Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh, you beat me to this point! Here's a more conversationally written article about the topic that I shared above before I saw your comment:

comment by avacyn · 2019-04-23T22:59:55.276Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On a less satirical note, I think one strong argument in favor of eating meat is that beef cattle (esp. grass-fed) might have net positive lives. If this is true, then the utilitarian line is to 1) eat more beef to increase demand, 2) continue advocating for welfare reforms that will make cows' lives even more positive.

Beef cattle are different than e.g. factory farmed chicken in that they live a long time (around 3 years on average vs 6-7 weeks for broilers), and spend much of their lives grazing on stockers where they might have natural-ish lives.

Another argument in favor of eating beef is that it tends to lead to deforestation, which decreases total wild animal habitat, which one might think are worse than beef farms.

Replies from: Jamie_Harris, kbog, WilliamKiely
comment by Jamie_Harris · 2019-04-27T14:50:06.338Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I haven't looked into this myself in any detail, but I just wanted to note that others have concluded that factory farmed cows have net negative lives, e.g. see this post by charity entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, here are excerpts from a couple of relevant posts, written by Brian Tomasik:

1) "Rainforest-beef production probably reduces wild-insect suffering. In fact, purchasing one kg of Brazilian beef prevents 2.6 * 105 insect-years of suffering as a median estimate and 5.9 * 106 insect-years in expectation. The sign of this conclusion could flip around if you substantially change certain input parameters—particularly if you think death by burning is many times more painful than predation and other non-burning deaths."

2) "If someone insists on eating meat, I would recommend eating rainforest-raised or grass-fed beef. Rainforest-grown beef plausibly reduces net animal populations because rainforests have such high productivity. Grass-fed beef plausibly also reduces net animal populations, because cattle can eat lots of grass that would otherwise feed smaller animals, and given that less of the feed for these cattle is farmed grain than in the case of non-grass-fed cattle, the uncertain net impacts of crop cultivation loom relatively less large over the calculation."

Replies from: AviN
comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-04-28T13:07:34.863Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Charity Entrepreneurship report doesn't seem to mention that beef cattle spend around half their lives on pasture. They are also including some dairy cattle considerations that don't apply to beef cattle, e.g. tie stalls. I think this might be skewing their report to a more negative estimate than appropriate.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T00:57:03.241Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

See [EA · GW] and the sources/welfare estimates therein.

Basically, yes their lives seem positive, but between small increases in demand for other kinds of meat (cross price elasticity) and long-run economic costs of climate change I consider it bad.

comment by WilliamKiely · 2019-04-24T04:56:08.021Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that the fact that grass-fed beef cattle might not have net positive lives is a strong argument in favor of not eating grass-fed beef. My values are roughly utilitarian but I have a fair amount of moral uncertainty and it seems to me that avoiding eating meat seems like the cautious thing to do given this uncertainty.

Replies from: avacyn
comment by avacyn · 2019-04-24T05:25:11.669Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that only makes sense if you're negative leaning, which I'm not. If you think that adding pleasurable lives is good, then you'd be taking a risk of *not* creating the net-positive cattle lives when you decided to eat tofu over beef.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing that we should eat beef (I'm vegan), I just thought it would be useful to describe the arguments that I thought this post was going to make before I read it :).

Replies from: utilitarian01, WilliamKiely
comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-04-30T14:01:27.875Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Donating is much more effective than the increase in demand though, especially when you consider the elasticity factor. So in that case you should just buy whatever food is cheaper and donate the excess, tofu is about 3x cheaper ($2 per pound) vs grass-fed beef ($6 per pound). I guess if you truly hate tofu you could have an excuse but there's always soy sauce to make it tastier.

comment by WilliamKiely · 2019-05-12T18:25:21.157Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm very skeptical of negative utilitarianism. There are other ways it makes sense if other non-utilitarian considerations matter, as I was saying above.

To try to point you in the direction I was thinking, I'll quote Michael Huemer below and clarify that I lean toward Huemer's view that the appropriate thing to do is "draw a line somewhere in the middle" rather than take the extreme view of strict consequentialism:

"“How large must the benefits be to justify a rights violation?” (For instance, for what number n is it permissible to kill one innocent person to save n innocent lives?) One extreme answer is “Rights violations are never justified,” but for various reasons, I think this answer [is] indefensible. Another extreme answer is consequentialism, “Rights violations are justified whenever the benefits exceed the harms” – which is really equivalent to saying there are no such things as rights. This is not indefensible, but it is very counter-intuitive. So we’re left with a seemingly arbitrary line somewhere in the middle."

When drawing the line somewhere in the middle murdering one person to save two may not be permissible (even though under utilitarianismit is), but murdering one to save 1000 may be, say.

Similarly, under one of these "line somewhere in the middle" views killing a sentient cattle for beef may be permissible if one could be certain that the cattle definitely had a net positive life, however killing the cattle may be impermissible given a certain amount of doubt (say 10%) about whether the cattle's life is net positive (even if one still thinks the cattle's life is net positive in expectation).

comment by matthewp · 2019-04-24T06:45:30.061Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The willpower argument is actually quite good. There are ways to reduce the amount of willpower required, but the kernel of the argument applies.

My prediction for people who constantly feel bad for not living up to an exacting standard is that a majority will fall off the boat entirely.

Replies from: tae
comment by tae · 2019-04-25T17:37:41.905Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Willpower is likely not a valid model — see the top-level comment by MichaelStJules below.

The point remains valid, though, that people are only willing to change their lives so much.

Replies from: matthewp
comment by matthewp · 2019-04-29T05:51:40.880Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ego depletion is quite a narrow psychological effect. If the idea that people's moment to moment fatigue saps moment to moment willpower is debunked, that's far from showing that akrasia isn't a thing in general.

In a world where general-sense akrasia was not a thing there would be a far higher rate of people being ripped like movie stars, a far lower rate of smoking, a much high rate of personal savings etc than there is in the world we inhabit.

comment by DavidNash · 2019-04-22T08:39:33.913Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure that many people who push for moral obligations hold inconsistent views. These seem like two mainly distinct sets of people.

Most people I speak to either think people are morally obligated to do actions that might improve the world, whether that's veganism, frugality etc or they take the more laid back approach.

I'd also say there are some differences between eating factory farmed meat and spending on ineffective charities, mainly that a world that still has factory farmed meat is hard to imagine as one of the best worlds compared to one where people still give money to ineffective charities.

comment by GeorgeBridgwater · 2019-04-22T07:05:37.348Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The openness of the EA movement to omnivores is a good point I had not considered before. Although this could probably be accomplished by not being in peoples face about it. I understand the reasoning that concludes that the strength of obligations to give to charity and for veganism are the same. However, I think there is one important distinction, we are causing harm. If we use the classic example of the child drowning in the pool. Not giving to charity is analogous to allowing the child to drown. Eating meat is analogous to drowning the child (or at least a chicken every couple of days). I think we should examine our actions through many ethical theory's due to moral uncertainty. If we do so we can see that there tends to be an extra obligation not to do harm in many ethical theory's. This means there is a distinction between not allowing someone to drown and drowning them. Thus I think there should be extra moral importance placed on first not doing the world any harm.

Replies from: Garrison, AviN
comment by Garrison · 2019-04-22T19:37:40.665Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I started out in EA as an omnivore who cared primarily about global poverty/health. Over time, indirect exposure to more vegans/vegetarians and the good arguments in favor of helping animals. I became pescatarian in Jan 2018 and vegetarian about a year later. But if people had been in my face about it/made me feel unwelcome for being an omnivore at the beginning, it's possible I wouldn't have stuck around and gone veggie. It's for this reason that I'm very careful about talking about the issue. It's not that I don't think we have a moral obligation to not consumer animal products, I've found that focusing on the "how" of going veg and only being candid about the moral considerations when pushed is most effective.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-04-23T12:59:16.795Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think creating distinctions between directly causing harm vs allowing harm to be caused is likely to reduce a person's effectiveness at doing good in the world. I think causing harm in an abstract way that doesn't violate social norms is basically OK if it leads to something more good. For instance, if I advocate to a funder to cut funding to a less effective program and use that funding for a more effective program, I am causing harm to the recipients of the program that got cut. I think that's fine and a good thing to do.

comment by Ramiro · 2019-04-24T14:48:57.248Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think you should warn your reader, in the first or second paragraph, that your intent is not so straightforward. Do not assume everyone will read it up to the end otherwise.

comment by Chris_Webster · 2019-04-23T23:27:03.781Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Instead, we should pick a proportion of our meals where we will avoid meat, and stick to that as a rule. I think that 10% is a good amount, it is a nice round number with some traditional precedent. Thus, I eat vegan food for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, which is 10% of my meals. Otherwise I stick to my usual diet, including factory-farmed meat.

The analogy breaks here: eating vegan near-100% of the time is feasible for most people, while donating near-100% of income is clearly not feasible save for the very rich. It's not a fair comparison to say that the "donate 10%" rule/precedent is equivalent to a "eat 10% vegan" rule/precedent.

I understand your overarching point, and perhaps you're right in that we should consider a stronger obligation to give more of our income. I just wanted to point out how your analogy is considerably flawed in one regard.

Replies from: kbog, notconvinced
comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T00:58:09.624Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes you are right about that.

comment by notconvinced · 2019-04-25T15:12:03.248Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Completely agree and the fact that by somehow being vegan you would be less inclined to donate money i think both are mutually exclusive and i have seen no evidence to date to prove otherwise.

Being vegan or not is a personal choice but the positive impact of not eating meat is not disputable- not just animal welfare, but also environmentally.

"it's inconsistent to have a rule for vegetarianism and dismiss these sorts of complaints if you also have such a meek view of obligations to donate to charity"

To me it seems much more consistent if you say you care about doing the most good but neglect the opportunity to do this every day in simple lifestyle choices both in veganism and environmentally to make a positive contribution to the planet. Particularly when most of us are in a privileged enough situation to have decent alternatives accessible to us.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T20:49:30.045Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You can say similar stuff about donations. E.g., there's no good evidence that donating lots of money makes you burn out of donating in the future, or makes you eat more meat or leave EA or things like that. It's all unproven.

comment by fractuality · 2019-04-23T04:58:34.772Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the arguments about moral realism/utility and ethics being demanding are very interesting.

I am new to EA, and I am an environmental vegetarian for over 10 years. I believe it was in one of the video introductions to EA that they talk about how many chickens equal a human life, and the answer varies for different individuals and for some may be quite large. Does EA allow for people having differing valuations of level of suffering?

For people whose animal-to-human suffering equivalence ratio is very high, could the choice to eat meat be presented as a cause of human suffering (of future generations, due to carbon emissions/equivalence) instead of animals? Then again, nearly every choice we make could be. (Do I take the bus vs. drive my car, do I feed myself this fancy meal or feed 100 starving children.)

Replies from: michaelchen
comment by michaelchen · 2019-04-23T11:59:19.993Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought the “moral nonrealism, therefore egoism” part was purely satire. (I felt like the other points, besides the cultural value one, actually seems seemed quite serious.) I’m not really sure how moral nonrealism works, but I haven’t seen it used within EA to argue for maximizing your personal pleasure and for nothing else mattering. I think it’s very unlikely you’d be an EA if you believed that.

There are definitely a lot of figures (either empirical or subjective) which EAs disagree about, and so there’s a lot of variation in people’s beliefs of what’s most impactful to work on.

Founders Pledge did some research into effective climate change charities (see Report - Climate Change.pdf), and it estimates that $100 to Coalition for Rainforest Nations averts “~857 tonnes of CO2e with a range of ~138 tonnes to ~4,600 tonnes”. For reference, apparently the average person in the US has a footprint of 16 tons, but I’m not sure if that’s CO2-equivalents or just CO2. Now, how valuable is averting a ton of CO2? The WHO had an old figure of 5,000 tons/DALY, but apparently that’s not reliable anymore ( If anyone has a better figure, please post a comment.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T20:55:41.514Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've seen a few people say it, not on this forum but in other EA associated spaces. "I only give to charity because I desire to do so."

comment by dpiepgrass · 2019-04-27T21:23:51.733Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This post is satire. Some of these reasons are good and some of them are bad...

Ahh, you might want to lead with that.

Since I don't have EA friends or an EA spouse, avoiding meat can be difficult and I've settled for "reducetarian".

comment by strangepoop · 2019-04-24T22:47:55.931Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It feels like there really is a sense in which someone who mugs a person vs someone who could have prevented it but walks away deserve different amounts of punishment. In which case, this is not at all an inconsistency.

Increasing the demand for meat does feel like I'm taking an action to cause the murder of animals, moreso than continuing with my life is causing poor people to remain poor and sick.

In the other direction, there really is a sense in which you "earned" your money (despite your privileges), and it really is a huge ask to give it up.

I'm not sure how to formalize the spectrum from merely complicit to primary cause, or even whether it's just a legacy of thinking in terms of property rights and should be done away with, but I'm not as sure as I used to be.

Either way, I don't think people should shy away from simultaneously holding strong views on veganism and moderate views on donating on these grounds.

comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-04-23T11:16:20.823Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

ACE charities are also super cost-effective (15 chickens spared per dollar or so) so if you can hold yourself to a deal like "I'm gonna eat steak tonight but promise to donate $1 to The Humane League after", you just did a lot more good than bad, at least in expected value.

Replies from: MichaelStJules, babukumaran
comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-04-24T03:38:01.392Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Deliberately offsetting a harm through a "similar" opposite benefit means deliberately restricting that donation to a charity from a restricted subset of possible charities, and it may be less effective than the ones you've ruled out. [EA · GW]

Offsetting could also justify murder, because there are life-saving charities.

Also related: [EA · GW]

comment by babukumaran · 2019-04-23T16:00:40.976Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Isn't this equivalent to "I am going to cause some suffering but promise to pay to educate someone else to not cause more suffering"?

Unlike carbon offsetting, animal suffering from factory farming is irreversible.

I agree that ACE charities are very cost-effective and I personally support them. But, the 15 chicken spared per dollar you quoted is not true. It is actually a rough estimate of -6 to +13 animals spared from industrial agriculture. Here is the donation impact estimate of the Human League according to ACE:

What do you get for your donation?

From an average $1,000 donation, THL would spend about $420 on corporate outreach to campaign for higher welfare policies. They would spend about $320 on grassroots outreach, including leafleting, supporting corporate campaigns, and humane education. THL would also spend about $130 on online ads, $100 on communications and social media, and about $30 on studies through Humane League Labs. Our rough estimate is that these activities combined would spare -6,000 to 13,000 animals from life in industrial agriculture.

Replies from: utilitarian01
comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-04-23T20:36:06.177Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair point. Also this model gives a very similar number too, if you take the median of the -6, 13 estimate (3.5).

comment by Louis_Dixon (bdixon) · 2019-04-24T15:33:34.663Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

TL;DR - maybe from an impact perspective your point makes sense, but I just find eating animals gross. (Also in B4 here comes a vegan)

My perspective (as someone who is vegan) who has learned about animal suffering is that the consumption of animal products, especially things like chicken breast, or other foods where you can see the bones and mechanics of it being from animal, makes the food very unappetising. Of course, the biggest impacts on animal welfare are through institutional change, wild animal suffering, and the long run future of life, but that doesn't stop eating a piece of meat from just feeling pretty unpleasant. Given that pigs are of comparable intelligence to dogs, a good comparison might be to think of why people would feel icky about eating labrador burgers.

I don't think it's a fair comparison with EAs taking holiday, or even how they maximise their altruism. It's true that those actions might affect suffering/welfare more profoundly than their dietary choices, but they're not literally ingesting the flesh of a dead animal which I think hits the 'yuck' reflex pretty hard.

Also, to clarify (even if what you've written is a joke), you've put together a pretty wobbly argument with an assumption in virtually each point that I don't think is easy to substantiate.

In terms of satire, I'm not sure that satirising the choice to not eat animal products is the funniest topic. Another example might be people who don't want to go to animal cagefighting matches because they think it's cruel, although maybe in some weird scenario they could run a cagefight and earn money to allocate to effective charities in a way that outweighs the suffering cagefight. But that doesn't make someone finding the cagefighting unpleasant, or their choices around it, a topic that's funny to satirise.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2019-04-25T20:57:56.120Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
In terms of satire, I'm not sure that satirising the choice to not eat animal products is the funniest topic.

Right, it's not supposed to be funny. I hope that reading this post makes one feel a sense of revulsion at covering up moral obligations with so many levels of rationalization. The point is that we should feel equally strongly about donations to charity.