The Vegan Value Asymmetry and its Consequences

post by tobytrem · 2020-10-25T10:55:25.877Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  1- The Vegan Value Asymmetry
  2- Consequences
  3- Conclusions

1- The Vegan Value Asymmetry

[this post argues that due to the titular vegan value asymmetry, buying plant-based food is a morally negative act which leads to animal suffering (in expectation). This is not, however, a counter-argument to the moral correctness of being vegan]

Regardless of our individual values, it is quite normal to think of a moral act as a good one, and an immoral act as a bad one. By good I mean that it is better than morally neutral, and by bad I mean it is worse. [1]

However, there are many places where this binary comes apart. One is when we are acting on vegan principles. Let’s call the vegan principle [2]:

“It is bad to cause more farmed animal production through your consumer choices” 

This is a distinctly negative principle, meaning that it tells you which actions are bad, but technically has no prescriptions for actions that are better than neutral (good by our earlier definition). As a vegan making a decision in a restaurant over which meal to eat, you will be presented with a menu of wrong actions, and then perhaps one or two neutral actions. This points at why we shouldn’t just focus on consumer choice, consumer decisions are very rarely good, they are usually neutral at best. [3]

The asymmetry that I refer to in the title is another way of stating this problem:

Cause some meat productionNegative
Cause no meat productionNeutral





2- Consequences

If you accept that this asymmetry exists, then almost nobody succeeds in keeping this principle intact. In fact, most intended vegan acts are morally wrong in expectation. 

An example- The consequentialist logic behind buying plant-based food rather than meat from a supermarket is that if you bought meat, the supermarket would be more likely to ask for more meat from its suppliers next time on your behalf. These suppliers then might have produced more meat in their next batch to meet the demand, and therefore more suffering would be brought into the world and the vegan principle would be broken. The vegan (especially the consequentialist vegan) buys plant-based food so as to not cause that final link to occur.

However, this causal chain is messy, and relies on the supermarket correctly identifying your purchases as non-meat, and not increasing meat demand as a consequence of that identification. But because of the asymmetry of vegan value, any chance that you buying plant-based food from a supermarket might promote meat production makes your action worse than neutral in expectation. 

We can imagine that there might be a chance of this. If a supermarket does not have perfect surveillance and analysis of every product they sell, then they might need to use imperfect heuristics to estimate demand. For example, imagine a supermarket that uses a portion of its excess revenue to buy more of those products that have sold out. If a certain type of sausage sells out every week, they might put some of the money that a vegan gives them into an extra case of those sausages. Unwittingly then, the vegan has counterfactually caused more animal suffering. 

This wouldn’t be a problem if the expected value of the purchase was neutral, i.e if eating meat-based was bad and eating plant-based was good. There might have then been an equal chance that you could have disproportionately increased the vegan sausage demand, and thus your choosing to buy vegan food would have been good in expectation. However, given the asymmetry, any chance of your action producing more meat production makes the action- in expectation- worse than neutral (likely to cause animal suffering).

3- Conclusions

This shouldn’t be a reason to despair, I guess most vegans sort of knew this already. Consequentialist vegans especially will probably have been couching their arguments in a "no ethical consumption" way anyway, focusing on harm reduction given the options rather than intrinsically good acts. 

However, I think that it is important to mention that a focus on the negative rights of animals not to suffer could lead to us ignoring opportunities to do positive, intrinsically good things for animals. Therefore the asymmetry might be useful to remind us that if we care about animal suffering, we might also need to care about animal flourishing [4]. Perhaps this involves conservation, or other interventions- I’m not sure. 

All things being equal, it is very important to be vegan. Despite the asymmetry we still greatly reduce the negative impact of our lives in expectation by doing so. But in order to have net positive lives, we need to do something more than follow consumer-choice based principles.



[1] I know that things get a lot more complex than this taxonomy, I’m not trying to commit to good acts being supererogatory. If this taxonomy frustrates you, don’t worry, the argument could be formulated without it. The taxonomy does serve to make the argument applicable to non-consequentialists though, so I think it is worth keeping in. 

[2] This is more properly a consequentialist vegan principle because that is the form of the principle presumably more widespread in EA, but the asymmetry argument would work for a non-consequentialist as long as they don't deny that the consequences of their actions matter at all. 

[3] This does not necessarily mean that it is neutral to be vegan. If you value the virtue of certain acts then you might be a more virtuous person if you are vegan, either because of the vegan principle itself being true or because you think consistency is virtuous. Additionally, for consequentialists like me, the vegan option is often the best from your possible options. Therefore it is the morally least worse act, even if it isn't intrinsically good. Either way, this point should remain external to the point of this post. 

[4] Unless you follow a totally suffering based ethics.


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comment by Sanjay · 2020-10-25T14:49:11.314Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry if I misunderstood, but does this rest on the assumption that farmed animal welfare is net negative? More on this here:

Replies from: EricHerboso
comment by EricHerboso · 2020-10-26T04:28:00.516Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

No, the OP's argument is assuming that the lives of farmed animals is net negative. It's saying that farmed animal welfare might at most be neutral, which would mean that, on expectation, farmed animal welfare is harmful. Nevertheless, it would be less harmful than ignoring farmed animal welfare would be, which means farmed animal welfare is still net positive.

Meanwhile, the argument in your link argues that farmed animal welfare may be net negative, but it relies on the opposite assumption that the lives of farmed animals may be net positive.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-10-28T06:42:23.878Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think these are relevant:


However, I think deontologists reject this kind of interpretation of their views. For one, trying to fit their views into a expected value or decision-theoretic framework basically assumes consequentialism from the outset, which they reject.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-10-28T06:38:34.508Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Therefore the asymmetry might be useful to remind us that if we care about animal suffering, we might also need to care about animal flourishing [4]. Perhaps this involves conservation, or other interventions- I’m not sure. 

You can do good by preventing more harm (e.g. suffering) than you cause, and I think this would be the typical vegan EA response.

comment by reallyeli · 2020-10-26T01:58:37.968Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To the extent which reducing demand for chicken prevents or delays the slaughtering of existing chickens, I don't see why there is an asymmetry. I place positive value on chickens living their chicken lives (when those lives are net-positive, whatever that means). Go beyond that and you get into population ethics.

But more importantly,  I think this post uses the term "good action" strictly to mean "action which has positive expected value," while the common usage of "good" is broader and can include actions which are merely less negative than an alternative.

comment by markus_over · 2020-10-27T11:47:32.750Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But in order to have net positive lives, we need to do something more than follow consumer-choice based principles.

I agree. Veganism is (for most vegans, I believe) mostly about reducing the harm you inflict on the world. It's clear you can't ever get to 0. Even if your life is net positive, somewhere along the way you always harm somebody or some being. And while veganism itself certainly has this asymmetry you refer to, it seems a lot of vegans take steps beyond that in the more positive direction, such as

  • being effective altruists and in that way trying to do more good in the world
  • go into activism or animal rights advocacy
  • work at animal shelters or even just taking care of a stray animal

So I don't think the risk of neglecting the positive side of things is all that high. Certainly makes sense to take it into consideration though, and I appreciate your post!