Vegetarianism

(Note: I wasn’t quite sure whether this war­ranted a high level post or just a dis­cus­sion. I haven’t made a high level post yet, and wasn’t en­tirely sure what the re­quire­ments are. For now I made it a dis­cus­sion, but I’d like some feed­back on that)

I’ve been some­what sur­prised by the lack of many threads on Less Wrong deal­ing with veg­e­tar­i­anism, ei­ther for or against. Is there some near-uni­ver­sally ac­cepted-but-un­spo­ken philos­o­phy here, or is it just not some­thing peo­ple think of much? I was par­tic­u­larly taken aback by the New­ton­mas in­vi­ta­tion not even men­tion­ing a veg­e­tar­ian op­tion. If a bunch of hy­per-ra­tio­nal­ists aren’t even think­ing about it, then ei­ther some­thing is pretty wrong with my think­ing or theirs.

I’m not go­ing to go through all the ar­gu­ments in de­tail here, but I’ll list the ba­sic ideas. If you’ve read “Diet for a Small Planet” or are oth­er­wise aware of the speci­fics, and have coun­ter­ar­gu­ments, feel free to ob­ject. If you haven’t, I con­sider read­ing it (or some­thing similar) a pre­req­ui­site for mak­ing a de­ci­sion about whether you eat meat, just as read­ing the se­quences is im­por­tant to have mean­ingful dis­cus­sion on this site.

The is­sues:

1. “It’s cruel to an­i­mals.” Fac­tory farm­ing is cruel on a mas­sive scale, be­yond what we find in na­ture. Even if an­i­mal suffer­ing has only 1% the weight of a hu­mans, there’s enough mul­ti­ply­ing go­ing on that you can’t just ig­nore it. I haven’t pre­cisely clar­ified my ethics in a way that avoids the Repug­nant Con­clu­sion (I’ve been vaguely de­scribing my­self as a “Prefer­ence Utili­tar­ian” but I con­fess that I haven’t fully ex­plored the ram­ifi­ca­tions of it), but it seems to me that if you’re not okay with breed­ing a sub­servient, less in­tel­li­gent species of hu­mans for slave la­bor and con­sump­tion, you shouldn’t be okay with how we treat an­i­mals. I don’t think in­tel­li­gence gives hu­mans any ad­di­tional in­trin­sic value, and I don’t think most hu­mans use their in­tel­li­gence to con­tribute to the uni­verse on a scale mean­ingful enough to make a bi­nary dis­tinc­tion be­tween the in­stru­men­tal value of the av­er­age hu­man vs the av­er­age cow.

2. “It’s bad for hu­mans.” The scale on which we eat meat is demon­stra­bly un­healthy, waste­ful and re­cent (aris­ing in Western cul­ture in the last hun­dred years). The way Western­ers eat in gen­eral is un­healthy and meat is just a part of that, but it’s a sig­nifi­cant fac­tor.

3. “It’s bad for the en­vi­ron­ment (which is bad for both hu­man and non-hu­man an­i­mals).” Mas­sive amounts of cows re­quire mas­sive amounts of grain, which re­quire un­sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture which dam­ages the soil. The cows them­selves are a ma­jor pol­lu­tion. (Edit: re­moved an at­ten­tion grab­bing fact that may or may not have been strictly true but I’m not cur­rently pre­pared to defend)

Now, there are some le­gi­t­i­mate coun­ter­ar­gu­ments against strict veg­e­tar­i­anism. It’s not nec­es­sary to be a pure veg­e­tar­ian for health or en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons. I do not ob­ject to free range farms that provide their an­i­mals with a de­cent life and painless death. I am fine with hunt­ing. (In fact, un­til a su­per-AI some­how rewrites the rules of the ecosys­tem, hunt­ing cer­tain an­i­mals is nec­es­sary since hu­mans have elimi­nated the nat­u­ral preda­tors). On top of all that, an­i­mal cru­elty is only one of a mil­lion prob­lems fac­ing the world, fac­tor­ing farm­ing is only one of its causes, and deal­ing with it takes effort. You could be spend­ing that effort deal­ing with one of the other 999,999 kinds of in­jus­tice that the world faces. And if that is your choice, af­ter hav­ing given se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to the is­sue, I un­der­stand.

I ac­tu­ally eat meat ap­prox­i­mately once a month, for each of the above rea­sons. Western So­ciety makes it difficult to live perfectly, and once-a-month turns out to be ap­prox­i­mately how of­ten I fail to live up to my ideals. My end goal for food con­sump­tion is to de­rive my meat, eggs and dairy prod­ucts from eth­i­cal sources, af­ter which I’ll con­sider it “good enough” (i.e. diminish­ing re­turns of effort vs im­prov­ing-the-world) and move on to an­other area of self im­prove­ment.