Is Veganism Correct?

I’m hearing lots about how it’s an obvious result that Effective Altruists should be vegans. This seems like a possible result to me, but not an obvious one. Here’s why.

The EA case for veganism relies on four principal claims:

  • Animals’ well-being has moral weight.
  • Eating animal products causes net harm to animals.
  • The harm caused to animals by eating animal products is greater than the benefit caused to humans.
  • The effect size is large enough to justify the cost of changing behaviors.

The standard Effective Altruist argument for refraining from eating animal products, is essentially the standard utilitarian argument: that killing animals for food causes animals a lot of harm, but causes humans very little benefit.

I am ignoring the question of whether this looks good to other people outside the movement because that’s usually not the main reason people think one should be vegan/vegetarian, and if we’re just doing it as a shibboleth to get non-EA animal welfare people interested in the cause, then we should know that that’s what we’re doing, so we don’t get confused about what causes are actually most effective. (Also that’s kind of insulting to the animal welfare people, though perhaps they care more about helping animals than about not being insulted. Also also, many of us are in fact deeply interested in animal welfare on utilitarian grounds and interested in knowing the truth here.)


Animals’ well-being has moral weight

I think that this claim is true with a high enough probability to be worth our attention. But it’s not obviously true, and I can imagine someone becoming reasonably confident that this is false.

Many animals are like us in being able to experience pain. They are all, or almost all, unlike us in lacking a model of themselves. (This is probably true of all animals commonly raised for food.) So, is it pure pain and pleasure that gives animals moral weight? If so, what about other intelligent systems with feedback mechanisms? But then if it’s consciousness, that seems wrong too – at least, I feel like a pig I can see suffering isn’t experiencing something qualitatively different than I am when I suffer.

On the other hand, maybe subjective experience doesn’t have intrinsic moral weight. Maybe I only care in the abstract about those who suffer if I believe that they are moral persons themselves capable of judgment.

I am genuinely unsure about this, and if anyone is not confused about this, either they haven’t thought about it much to begin with, or they should explain how they got the correct answer so I can stop being confused.


Eating animal products causes net harm to animals.

Even if we agree that animals’ well-being is important, the question remains: are you doing net harm by eating animal products?

I also assume that we are talking in utilitarian terms. Not everyone is a utilitarian of course, but many people’s revealed preferences can be well-modeled as utility functions, and it is helpful to be able to say whether a cost to one person is outweighed by a benefit to another. Arguments about the moral repugnance of feasting upon the flesh of a once-living animal might or might not be correct, but they are definitely not EA arguments. The question is, how much harm is done, and how much harm would have to be done to avert it?

The obvious way to think about this is to directly compare the value of an animal’s life with the value of a human’s life, like so: It’s worth spending between $5 and $10 Million (according to the US government) to save a human life. Let’s say you think that a farm-raised pig’s life is worth 20% of a human’s, and eating 1,000 calories of pork destroys 1.2% of a pig’s life. Assuming every bit of pork eaten contributes proportionally to an extra pig death, you should be willing to spend at least $5,000,000 * 20% * 1.2% = $12,000 to prevent someone from eating 1,000 calories of pork, or $3,000 to prevent them from eating 250 calories of pork, about 6 ounces.

The problem with this reasoning is that it compares unlike harms.

Humans are not commonly raised for meat. If you kill a human, you are killing someone who otherwise would have lived. So the net effect is a loss of lived years to that person. The main harm done to a human by killing them is foregone life. You can kill someone as humanely as you like, they’re still dead.

On the other hand, pigs and other food animals are raised specifically to be eaten. If you eat a pig for food, you are indirectly causing the death of a pig to meet average demand, even though the pig you are eating, if it was factory-farmed, was almost certainly already dead by the time you decided to buy it. But by the same reasoning, you are indirectly causing the life of a pig. Farmers won’t raise pigs they can’t sell, so by increasing demand for pigs, you are increasing the number of years of lived pig-experience by the lifespan of one farmed pig. If, like humans, most pigs would not prefer to die, then this is a benefit.

What we really care about for food animals is the suffering we cause, of which there are two kinds: day-to-day suffering, and slaughter.

Even humane slaughterhouses can be pretty awful; we pay a lot more attention to how humans are killed, take expensive measures to kill people painlessly, and we still haven’t managed to make it consistently painless. I don’t doubt that it is very stressful and scary for an animal to be led to its death in an abbatoir. But that’s not enough to be obviously a net harm. Would you rather die right now painlessly, or after five extra years of your life in a briefly painful way? It’s not obvious that everyone would choose the second option – why should we expect this to be different with animals? Even fairly short-lived ones live for much longer than they die.

If the animal’s life were of no value to it – if its waking hours were filled with enough suffering to make it wish it had never been born – then it would be easy to show that eating animal products is a net harm. And factory farming is in fact pretty awful. Most animals eaten by people in industrialized countries are raised and killed using industrial practices. It’s reasonable to think that this is pretty miserable for the animals involved.

Let’s get one thing straight here, though. This line of reasoning does not say that eating animal products is bad because you’re responsible for an animal’s death. It says that eating animal products is bad because you’re responsible for an animal’s life.

I find it difficult to simply assume that, if a factory-farmed pig somehow had the capacity to think about and answer the question, it would tell you that it would rather not be alive. The closest analogy (though it is not very close – for one thing, factory farmed animals are well-fed, for another, they don’t have human-level consciousness) among humans is inmates in Nazi concentration camps, many of whom – with no credible hope of escape – still wished to live another day rather than die. Should the US have bombed the concentration camps? Would that have been an improvement in total welfare?

Then again, the fact that a pig can’t think about that question, of whether it would rather it had never been born, makes it hard to say that the pig has a preference in the matter at all – and if it doesn’t have a preference, how does it have moral weight? (But that’s related to the previous section, where I already said I was confused.)

This, of course, is not an argument for abstaining from all animal products, but from factory-farmed ones, or others where the animal suffers a lot. It is not an argument against consuming even somewhat humanely farmed animal products, or wild game.

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that there is one moral theory under which the question of harm is easy to answer: negative utilitarianism. It is not what it sounds like. Negative utilitarians don’t want to minimize total utility. They still want to maximize it. They just believe that the only morally important utility is negative utility. Put plainly, they care about reducing suffering, but not increasing pleasure. Negative utilitarians would have no problem saying that eating animal products is a net harm, because it produces any significant suffering at all.

On the downside, taken to its logical conclusion, negative utilitarianism says that it is morally obligatory to exterminate all life, should you have the opportunity to do so. I don’t know about you, but I want to live. I’m even signed up for cryonics.


The harm caused to animals by eating animal products is greater than the benefit caused to humans

I’m not even sure that animal product consumption causes net harm. But my guess is that if it does, it is significant enough to outweigh the gain to humans. An animal’s life suffering might even be more morally significant than a human’s, because it has no consciousness with which to contextualize its suffering and give it meaning – it’s just hurting and it doesn’t understand why.

For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the people advocating veganism do not mean to include the edge cases like people with allergies or other special medical conditions that make avoiding animal products unusually costly for them.


The effect size is large enough to justify the cost of changing behaviors

I don’t want to deprecate people who are vegans for utilitarian reasons.

For people who aren’t – or who are but hate it – you should consider not going vegan unless it sounds fun. (Chris Hallquist does have a post up on how this can be easy, though.)

Effective Altruists are at constant risk of burnout. The awesome thing about Effective Altruism is that there are so many small things you can do that help others a tremendous amount. The terrible burden of Effective Altruism is that there are so many small things you can do that help others a tremendous amount. Even within animal rights, wild animal suffering is potentially so much more important than factory farming that you might want to do what you can about the former, and not waste any energy on the latter – just eat whatever serves your personal well-being the best. Similarly, so many more people live in the far future than the present that you might want to use your limited resources to help future people, not present ones.

Take care of yourself – there’s only one of you and if you use yourself up you won’t get another.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

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