When should an Effective Altruist be vegetarian?

I have lately no­ticed sev­eral peo­ple won­der­ing why more Effec­tive Altru­ists are not veg­e­tar­i­ans. I am per­son­ally not a veg­e­tar­ian be­cause I don’t think it is an effec­tive way to be al­tru­is­tic.

As far as I can tell the fact that many EAs are not veg­e­tar­i­ans is sur­pris­ing to some be­cause they think ‘an­i­mals are prob­a­bly morally rele­vant’ ba­si­cally im­plies ‘we shouldn’t eat an­i­mals’. To my ear, this sounds about as ab­surd as if Givewell’s ex­pla­na­tion of their recom­men­da­tion of SCI stopped af­ter ‘the de­vel­op­ing world ex­ists, or at least has a high prob­a­bil­ity of do­ing so’.

(By the way, I do get to a calcu­la­tion at the bot­tom, af­ter some spec­u­la­tion about why the calcu­la­tion I think is ap­pro­pri­ate is un­like what I take oth­ers’ im­plicit calcu­la­tions to be. Feel free to just scroll down and look at it).

I think this fairly large differ­ence be­tween my and many veg­e­tar­i­ans’ guesses at the value of veg­e­tar­i­anism arises be­cause they think the rele­vant ques­tion is whether the suffer­ing to the an­i­mal is worse than the plea­sure to them­selves at eat­ing the an­i­mal. This ques­tion sounds su­perfi­cially plau­si­bly rele­vant, but I think on closer con­sid­er­a­tion you will agree that it is the wrong ques­tion.

The real ques­tion is not whether the cost to you is small, but whether you could do more good for the same small cost.

Similarly, when de­cid­ing whether to donate $5 to a ran­dom char­ity, the ques­tion is whether you could do more good by donat­ing the money to the most effec­tive char­ity you know of. Go­ing veg­e­tar­ian be­cause it re­lieves the an­i­mals more than it hurts you is the equiv­a­lent of donat­ing to a ran­dom de­vel­op­ing world char­ity be­cause it re­lieves the suffer­ing of an im­pov­er­ished child more than fore­go­ing $5 in­creases your suffer­ing.

Trad­ing with in­con­ve­nience and displeasure

My imag­i­nary veg­e­tar­ian de­bate part­ner ob­jects to this on grounds that veg­e­tar­i­anism is differ­ent from donat­ing to in­effec­tive char­i­ties, be­cause to be a veg­e­tar­ian you are spend­ing effort and en­joy­ing your life less rather than spend­ing money, and you can’t re­ally re­al­lo­cate that in­con­ve­nience and dis­plea­sure to, say, pre­vent­ing ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence dis­aster or feed­ing the hun­gry, if don’t use it on read­ing food la­bels and eat­ing tofu. If I were to go ahead and eat the sausage in­stead – the con­cern goes – prob­a­bly I would just go on with the rest of my life ex­actly the same, and a bunch of farm an­i­mals some­where would be the worse for it, and I scarcely bet­ter.

I agree that if the meat eat­ing de­ci­sion were sep­a­rated from ev­ery­thing else in this way, then the de­ci­sion re­ally would be about your welfare vs. the an­i­mal’s welfare, and you should prob­a­bly eat the tofu.

How­ever whether you can trade be­ing veg­e­tar­ian for more effec­tive sac­ri­fices is largely a ques­tion of whether you choose to do so. And if veg­e­tar­i­anism is not the most effec­tive way to in­con­ve­nience your­self, then it is clear that you should choose to do so. If you eat meat now in ex­change for suffer­ing some more effec­tive an­noy­ance at an­other time, you and the world can be bet­ter off.

Imag­ine an EA friend says to you that she gives sub­stan­tial money to what­ever ran­dom char­ity has put a tin in what­ever shop she is in, be­cause it’s bet­ter than the donuts and new dresses she would buy oth­er­wise. She doesn’t see how not giv­ing the money to the ran­dom char­ity would re­ally cause her to give it to a bet­ter char­ity – em­piri­cally she would spend it on lux­u­ries. What do you say to this?

If she were my friend, I might point out that the money isn’t meant to mag­i­cally move some­where bet­ter – she may have to con­sciously di­rect it there. She might need to write down how much she was go­ing to give to the ran­dom char­ity, then look at the note later for in­stance. Or she might do well to de­cide once and for all how much to give to char­ity and how much to spend on her­self, and then stick to that. As an aside, I might also feel that she was us­ing the term ‘Effec­tive Altru­ist’ kind of broadly.

I see veg­e­tar­i­anism for the sake of not man­ag­ing to trade in­con­ve­niences as quite similar. And in both cases you risk spend­ing your life do­ing sub­op­ti­mal things ev­ery time a sub­op­ti­mal al­tru­is­tic op­por­tu­nity has a chance to steal re­sources from what would be your per­sonal purse. This seems like some­thing that your per­sonal and al­tru­is­tic val­ues should co­op­er­ate in avoid­ing.

It is likely too ex­pen­sive to keep track of an elab­o­rate trad­ing sys­tem, but you should at least be able to make rea­son­able long term ar­range­ments. For in­stance, if in­stead of eat­ing veg­e­tar­ian you ate a bit fru­gally and saved and donated a few dol­lars per meal, you would prob­a­bly do more good (see calcu­la­tions lower in this post). So if fru­gal eat­ing were similarly an­noy­ing, it would be bet­ter. Eat­ing fru­gally is in­con­ve­nient in very similar ways to veg­e­tar­i­anism, so is a par­tic­u­larly plau­si­ble trade if you are skep­ti­cal that such trades can be made. I claim you could make very differ­ent trades though, for in­stance fore­go­ing the plea­sure of an ex­tra five minute’s break and work­ing in­stead some­times. Or you could de­cide once and for all how much an­noy­ance to have, and then choose most worth­while bits of an­noy­ance, or put a dol­lar value on your own time and suffer­ing and try to be con­sis­tent.

Ne­bu­lous life-wors­en­ing costs of vegetarianism

There is a sep­a­rate psy­cholog­i­cal ques­tion which is of­ten mixed up with the above is­sue. That is, whether mak­ing your life marginally less grat­ify­ing and more an­noy­ing in small ways will make you suffi­ciently less pro­duc­tive to un­der­mine the good done by your sac­ri­fice. This is not about whether you will do some­thing a bit costly an­other time for the sake of al­tru­ism, but whether just spend­ing your at­ten­tion and hap­piness on veg­e­tar­i­anism will harm your other efforts to do good, and cause more harm than good.

I find this plau­si­ble in many cases, but I ex­pect it to vary a lot by per­son. My mother seems to think it’s ba­si­cally free to eat sup­ple­ments, whereas to me ev­ery ad­di­tional daily rou­tine seems to en­cum­ber my life and re­quire me to spend dis­pro­por­tionately more time think­ing about unim­por­tant things. Some peo­ple find it hard to con­cen­trate when un­happy, oth­ers don’t. Some peo­ple strug­gle to feed them­selves ad­e­quately at all, while oth­ers ac­tively en­joy prepar­ing food.

There are offset­ting pos­i­tives from veg­e­tar­i­anism which also vary across peo­ple. For in­stance there is the plea­sure of self-sac­ri­fice, the joy of be­ing part of a proud and mor­al­iz­ing minor­ity, and the ab­sence of the hor­ror of eat­ing other be­ings. There are also per­haps health benefits, which prob­a­bly don’t vary that much by peo­ple, but peo­ple do vary in how big they think the health benefits are.

Another way you might ac­ci­den­tally lose more value than you save is in spend­ing lit­tle bits of time which are hard to mea­sure or no­tice. For in­stance, veg­e­tar­i­anism means spend­ing a bit more time search­ing for veg­e­tar­ian al­ter­na­tives, re­search­ing nu­tri­tion, buy­ing sup­ple­ments, writ­ing emails back to peo­ple who in­vite you to din­ner ex­plain­ing your dietary re­stric­tions, etc. The value of differ­ent peo­ple’s time varies a lot, as does the ex­tent to which an ad­di­tional veg­e­tar­i­anism rou­tine would tend to eat their time.

On a less psy­cholog­i­cal note, the po­ten­tial drop in IQ (~5 points?!) from miss­ing out on cre­a­tine is a par­tic­u­larly ter­rible ex­am­ple of veg­e­tar­i­anism mak­ing peo­ple less pro­duc­tive. Now that we know about cre­a­tine and can sup­ple­ment it, cre­a­tine it­self is not such an is­sue. An is­sue does re­main though: is this an un­likely one-off failure, or should we worry about more such defi­ciency? (this goes for any kind of un­usual diet, not just meat-free ones).

How much is avoid­ing meat worth?

Here is my own calcu­la­tion of how much it costs to do the same amount of good as re­plac­ing one meat meal with one veg­e­tar­ian meal. If you would be will­ing to pay this much ex­tra to eat meat for one meal, then you should eat meat. If not, then you should ab­stain. For in­stance, if eat­ing meat does $10 worth of harm, you should eat meat when­ever you would hy­po­thet­i­cally pay an ex­tra $10 for the priv­ilege.

This is a ten­ta­tive calcu­la­tion. I will prob­a­bly up­date it if peo­ple offer sub­stan­tially bet­ter num­bers.

All quan­tities are in terms of so­cial harm.

Eat­ing 1 non-veg­e­tar­ian meal

< eat­ing 1 chick­eny meal (I am told chick­ens are par­tic­u­larly bad an­i­mals to eat, due to their poor liv­ing con­di­tions and large an­i­mal:meal ra­tio. The rel­a­tively small size of their brains might offset this, but I will con­ser­va­tively give all an­i­mals the moral weight of hu­mans in this calcu­la­tion.)

< eat­ing 200 calories of chicken (a McDon­alds crispy chicken sand­wich prob­a­bly con­tains a bit over 100 calories of chicken (based on its listed pro­tein con­tent); a Chipo­tle chicken bur­rito con­tains around 180 calories of chicken)

= caus­ing ~0.25 chicken lives (1 chicken is equiv­a­lent in price to 800 calories of chicken breast i.e. eat­ing an ad­di­tional 800 calories of chicken breast con­ser­va­tively re­sults in one ad­di­tional chicken. Calcu­la­tions from data here and here.)

< -$0.08 given to the Hu­mane League (ACE es­ti­mates the Hu­mane League spares 3.4 an­i­mal lives per dol­lar). How­ever since the hu­mane league ba­si­cally con­vinces other peo­ple to be veg­e­tar­i­ans, this may be hyp­o­crit­i­cal or oth­er­wise du­bi­ous.

< caus­ing 12.5 days of chicken life (broiler chick­ens are slaugh­tered at be­tween 35-49 days of age)

= caus­ing 12.5 days of chicken suffer­ing (I’m be­ing gen­er­ous)

< -$0.50 sub­si­diz­ing free range eggs, (This is a some­what ran­dom ex­am­ple of the cost of more sys­tem­atic efforts to im­prove an­i­mal welfare, rather than nec­es­sar­ily the best. The cost here is the cost of buy­ing free range eggs and sel­l­ing them as non-free range eggs. It costs about 2.6 2004 Euro cents [= US 4c in 2014] to pay for an egg to be free range in­stead of pro­duced in a bat­tery. This cor­re­sponds to a bit over one day of chicken life. I’m as­sum­ing here that the life of a bat­tery egg-lay­ing chicken is not sub­stan­tially bet­ter than that of a meat chicken, and that free range chick­ens have lives that are at least neu­tral. If they are pos­i­tive, the figure be­comes even more fa­vor­able to the free range eggs).

< los­ing 12.5 days of high qual­ity hu­man life (as­sum­ing sav­ing one year of hu­man life is at least as good as stop­ping one year of an an­i­mal suffer­ing, which you may dis­agree with.)

= -$1.94-5.49 spent on GiveWell’s top char­i­ties (This was GiveWell’s es­ti­mate for AMF if we as­sume sav­ing a life cor­re­sponds to sav­ing 52 years – roughly the life ex­pec­tancy of chil­dren in Malawi. GiveWell doesn’t recom­mend AMF at the mo­ment, but they recom­mend char­i­ties they con­sid­ered com­pa­rable to AMF when AMF had this value.

GiveWell em­ploy­ees’ me­dian es­ti­mate for the cost of ‘sav­ing a life’ through donat­ing to SCI is $5936 [see spread­sheet here]. If we sup­pose a life is 37 DALYs, as they as­sume in the spread­sheet, then 12.5 days is worth 5936*12.5/​37*365.25 = $5.49. Elie pro­duced two es­ti­mates that were gen­er­ous to cash and to de­worm­ing sep­a­rately, and gave the high­est and low­est es­ti­mates for the cost-effec­tive­ness of de­worm­ing, of the group. They im­ply a range of $1.40-$45.98 to do as much good via SCI as eat­ing veg­e­tar­ian for a meal).

Given this calcu­la­tion, we get a few cents to a cou­ple of dol­lars as the cost of do­ing similar amounts of good to avert­ing a meat meal via other means. We are not finished yet though – there were many fac­tors I didn’t take into ac­count in the calcu­la­tion, be­cause I wanted to sep­a­rate rel­a­tively straight­for­ward facts for which I have good ev­i­dence from guesses. Here are other con­sid­er­a­tions I can think of, which re­duce the rel­a­tive value of avert­ing meat eat­ing:

  1. Chicken brains are fairly small, sug­gest­ing their in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience is less than that of hu­mans. More gen­er­ally, in the spec­trum of en­tities be­tween hu­mans and microbes, chick­ens are at least some of the way to microbes. And you wouldn’t pay much to save a microbe.

  2. Eat­ing a chicken only re­duces the num­ber of chicken pro­duced by some frac­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Peter Hur­ford, an ex­tra 0.3 chick­ens are pro­duced if you de­mand 1 chicken. I didn’t in­clude this in the above calcu­la­tion be­cause I am not sure of the time scale of the rele­vant elas­tic­i­ties (if they are short-run elas­tic­i­ties, they might un­der­es­ti­mate the effect of veg­e­tar­i­anism).

  3. Vegetable pro­duc­tion may also have nega­tive effects on an­i­mals.

  4. Givewell es­ti­mates have been rigor­ously checked rel­a­tive to other things, and eval­u­a­tions tend to get worse as you check them. For in­stance, you might for­get to in­clude any of the things in this list in your eval­u­a­tion of veg­e­tar­i­anism. Prob­a­bly there are more things I for­got. That is, if you looked into veg­e­tar­i­anism with the same de­tail as SCI, it would be­come more pes­simistic, and so cheaper to do as much good with SCI.

  5. It is not at all ob­vi­ous that meat an­i­mal lives are not worth liv­ing on av­er­age. Re­lat­edly, an­i­mals gen­er­ally want to be al­ive, which we might want to give some weight to.

  6. An­i­mal welfare in gen­eral ap­pears to have neg­ligible pre­dictable effect on the fu­ture (very de­bat­ably), and there are prob­a­bly things which can have huge im­pact on the fu­ture. This would make an­i­mal al­tru­ism worse com­pared to pre­sent-day hu­man in­ter­ven­tions, and much worse com­pared to in­ter­ven­tions di­rected at af­fect­ing the far fu­ture, such as avert­ing ex­is­ten­tial risk.

My own quick guesses at fac­tors by which the rel­a­tive value of avoid­ing meat should be mul­ti­plied, to ac­count for these con­sid­er­a­tions:

  1. Mo­ral value of small an­i­mals: 0.05

  2. Raised price re­duces oth­ers’ con­sump­tion: 0.5

  3. Vegeta­bles harm an­i­mals too: 0.9

  4. Ri­gor­ous es­ti­mates look worse: 0.9

  5. An­i­mal lives might be worth liv­ing: 0.2

  6. An­i­mals don’t af­fect the fu­ture: 0.1 rel­a­tive to hu­man poverty charities

Thus given my es­ti­mates, we scale down the above figures by 0.05*0.5*0.9*0.9*0.2*0.1 =0.0004. This gives us $0.0008-$0.002 to do as much good as eat­ing a veg­e­tar­ian meal by spend­ing on GiveWell’s top char­i­ties. Without the fac­tor for the fu­ture (which doesn’t ap­ply to these other an­i­mal char­i­ties), we only mul­ti­ply the cost of eat­ing a meat meal by 0.004. This gives us a price of $0.0003 with the Hu­mane League, or $0.002 on im­prov­ing chicken welfare in other ways. Th­ese are not price differ­ences that will change my meal choices very of­ten! I think I would of­ten be will­ing to pay at least a cou­ple of ex­tra dol­lars to eat meat, set­ting aside an­i­mal suffer­ing. So if I were to avoid eat­ing meat, then as­sum­ing I keep fixed how much of my bud­get I spend on my­self and how much I spend on al­tru­ism, I would be trad­ing a cou­ple of dol­lars of value for less than one thou­sandth of that.

I en­courage you to es­ti­mate your own num­bers for the above fac­tors, and to re­calcu­late the over­all price ac­cord­ing to your be­liefs. If you would hap­pily pay this much (in my case, less than $0.002) to eat meat on many oc­ca­sions, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be a veg­e­tar­ian. You are bet­ter off pay­ing that cost el­se­where. If you would rarely be will­ing to pay the calcu­lated price, you should per­haps con­sider be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian, though note that the calcu­la­tion was con­ser­va­tive in fa­vor of veg­e­tar­i­anism, so you might want to run it again more care­fully. Note that in judg­ing what you would be will­ing to pay to eat meat, you should take into ac­count ev­ery­thing ex­cept the di­rect cost to an­i­mals.

There are many com­mon rea­sons you might not be will­ing to eat meat, given these calcu­la­tions, e.g.:

  • You don’t en­joy eat­ing meat

  • You think meat is pretty unhealthy

  • You be­long to a so­cial cluster of veg­e­tar­i­ans, and don’t like conflict

  • You think con­vinc­ing enough oth­ers to be veg­e­tar­i­ans is the most cost-effec­tive way to make the world bet­ter, and be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian is a great way to have heaps of con­ver­sa­tions about veg­e­tar­i­anism, which you be­lieve makes peo­ple feel bet­ter about veg­e­tar­i­ans over­all, to the ex­tent that they are fre­quently com­pel­led to be­come veg­e­tar­i­ans.

  • ‘For sig­nal­ing’ is an­other com­mon ex­pla­na­tion I have heard, which I think is meant to be similar to the above, though I’m not ac­tu­ally sure of the de­tails.

  • You aren’t able to treat costs like these as fun­gible (as dis­cussed above)

  • You are com­pletely in­differ­ent to what you eat (in that case, you would prob­a­bly do bet­ter eat­ing as cheaply as pos­si­ble, but maybe ev­ery­thing is the same price)

  • You con­sider the act-omis­sion dis­tinc­tion morally relevant

  • You are very skep­ti­cal of the abil­ity to af­fect any­thing, and in par­tic­u­lar have sub­stan­tially greater con­fi­dence in the mar­ket – to farm some frac­tion of a pig fewer in ex­pec­ta­tion if you ab­stain from pork for long enough – than in non­prof­its and com­pli­cated schemes. (Though in that case, con­sider buy­ing free-range eggs and sel­l­ing them as cage eggs).

  • You think the suffer­ing of an­i­mals is of ex­treme im­por­tance com­pared to the suffer­ing of hu­mans or loss of hu­man lives, and don’t trust the figures I have given for im­prov­ing the lives of egg-lay­ing chick­ens, and don’t want to be a hyp­ocrite. Ac­tu­ally, you still prob­a­bly shouldn’t here – the egg-lay­ing chicken num­ber is just an ex­am­ple of a plau­si­ble al­ter­na­tive way to help an­i­mals. You should re­ally check quite a few of these be­fore set­tling.

How­ever I think for wannabe effec­tive al­tru­ists with the usual ar­ray of char­ac­ter­is­tics, veg­e­tar­i­anism is likely to be quite in­effec­tive.