Animal welfare EA and personal dietary options

When I imagine an animal welfare EA group, I imagine views breaking down something like:

  • 50%: If factory farmed animals are moral patients, it’s more likely that they have net-negative lives (i.e., it would better for them not to exist, than to live such terrible lives).

  • 50%: If factory farmed animals are moral patients, it’s more likely that they have net-positive lives (i.e., their lives may be terrible, but they aren’t so lacking in value that preventing the life altogether is a net improvement).

This seems like a super hard question, and not one that changes the importance of working to promote animal welfare, so naively (absent some argument for a more informative prior) it should have a 5050 split within animal welfare circles.

(Possibly more effort should go into the net-positive view within EA because it’s more neglected by animal welfare activists, who tend to be veg*ns; but the space as a whole is so neglected that I suspect this shouldn’t be a large factor.)

Within the “net-negative” camp, in my unanchored “what would I naively expect?” hypothetical, I then imagine dietary preferences breaking down something like:

  • 10%: Approximate veg*nism or approximate reducetarianism. (“Approximate” to allow for carve-outs like bivalves and especially-moral animal products. The group generally strongly encourages all members to have at least one carve-out, because bivalves in particular are such a clear case and dietary purity ethics is a risky attractor to avoid.)

  • 10%: Handshake-itarianism.

  • 20%: Boycott-itarianism.

  • 60%: Anything goes. A normal meat-eating diet, optimized only for health and convenience. This is the standard animal welfare EA diet, because EA is generally about optimizing your positive impact on the world, not about purifying your personal actions of any possible negative impact.

The number would be much higher than 60% on strictly utilitarian grounds, but humans aren’t strict utilitarians and it makes sense for people working hard on improving animal lives to develop strong feelings about their own personal relationship to factory farming, or to want to self-signal their commitment in some fashion.

Within the “net-positive” camp, I imagine:

  • 10%: Sentience-maximizing diets. If you think animals in factory farms have net-positive lives, then it makes sense to want to increase the number of animals (by eating the most meat-heavy healthy diet possible) while also working to improve their welfare.

  • 10%: Handshake-itarianism.

  • 20%: Boycott-itarianism.

  • 60%: Anything goes.

Handshake-itarianism observes that the ~veg*ns and the sentience-maximizers are sort of offsetting each other’s efforts, and that it can make more sense for Bob the ~Veg*n and Alice the Sentience-Maximizer to pair off and each agree to eat a “compromise” diet (e.g., both eat meat but only on the weekend). This has a few nice consequences:

- Both diets are likely to be healthier, because they’ll be more nutritionally diverse/​balanced. This makes it likelier that both EAs will be more productive and have better lives.

- The outcome can be closer to an optimal trade between Alice and Bob’s values, because it’s less likely to be constrained by either individual’s personal circumstances or limitations.

Maybe Alice has an easier time sticking to her ideal diet than Bob does, but Bob is more confident in his view than Alice is; in that case, a handshake diet can produce an outcome that’s closer to a compromise between Alice and Bob’s ideal diets, because less-extreme diets are easier to maintain and because the handshake agreement has more adjustable parameters. (Like, Alice is lactose-intolerant so Bob drinks more milk on Alice’s behalf.)

- Trades like this are likely to have positive social and psychological effects. If Alice and Bob are actively trying to undo each other’s efforts, then they may feel (at least slightly) less cooperation and goodwill about collaborating on other animal welfare projects, even if they don’t reflectively endorse that attitude. A joint effort to produce a good compromise outcome is likely to feel better.

The main downside of handshake-itarianism is that, like reducetarianism, it’s complicated — ‘never eat meat’ is a simple heuristic, whereas ‘only eat meat on the weekend’ is easier to mess up.

Some people will have an easier time going ~veg*an than reducetarian, e.g., because they find it less stressful to pick a clear black line and stick to it. Others will find handshake-itarianism or reducetarianism easier to stick to, because the rules can be stipulated in ways that provide more leeway (‘I can break my diet at the party tonight, as long as I make a note to buy an extra hamburger tomorrow’).

Boycott-itarianism is the most popular EA dietary restriction (in this visualization), and has a lot of the nice features of the above options. Animal welfare EAs disagree about whether factory-farmed animals have net-positive lives, but they agree that it’s good to improve those lives, and they agree about a lot of interventions that would improve those lives. So a robustly good dietary intervention is one that:

- Chooses some concrete threshold (e.g., ‘I’ll only eat chickens if they’re cage-free’), and loudly sticks to it. This gives meat producers an economic incentive to switch to the more ethical option.

- Makes the threshold relatively easy to achieve, so the incentive is stronger. A specific action that can be done today is better than a long list, a fuzzy heuristic, or a thing that’s economically /​ technologically unviable today.

- Make the threshold simple and obvious, so it’s easier for lots of people to coordinate around the same threshold(s) (thereby making the incentive stronger).