[Content warning: discussion of animal suffering. If you don’t care about animal suffering, this post is probably not for you. There is no reason to read it anyway and loudly complain in the comments.]
Brian Kateman on QZ.com writes that We Need More Meat-Eating Animal Rights Activists. Finally, the mainstream media gives me ex cathedra permisson to say things that are kind of hypocritical!
I believe animals probably have moral value. I also eat meat. There is obvious tension between these positions; animals suffer and (obviously) die during meat production. I can only say in my defense that I tried being a vegetarian for several years and it was horrible and I ended up subsisting almost entirely on bread and Quorn and I don’t want to go back there.
But over the past few years I’ve read about two ideas that have changed the way I look at meat-eating and significantly reduced my moral footprint with minimal inconvenience. These are not original to me and I don’t take credit for them, but I hope that the people involved won’t mind me taking this advantage to publicize them more widely.
1. Eat Beef, Not Chicken
This argument is so simple I feel dumb for not thinking of it myself; instead, I take it from Julia Galef and Brian Tomasik. Suppose I get about a third of my daily calorie requirement from meat; that adds up to 250,000 calories of meat a year. Further suppose that it’s split evenly between 125,000 calories of beef and 125,000 calories of chicken.
The average cow is very big and makes 405,000 calories of beef; the average chicken is very small and makes 3000 calories worth of chicken. So each year, I kill about 0.3 cows and about 42 chickens, for a total of 42.3 animals killed.  
Suppose that I stop eating chicken and switch entirely to beef. Now I am killing about 0.6 cows and 0 chickens, for a total of 0.6 animals killed. By this step alone, I have decreased the number of animals I am killing from 42.3/year to 0.6/year, a 98% improvement.
The difference becomes even bigger once you compare levels of suffering. Chickens are probably the most miserable farm animals; they are mutilated, packed into tiny cages to the point of immobility, left to fester in their own waste, and bred so intensively for size that their bodies cannot support them and they likely experience severe musculoskeletal pain. Although cows’ lives are also pretty terrible too, Brian Tomasik estimates that chickens’ suffering is about twice as bad. Taking this into account, switching from 50-50 to all-beef reduces your contribution to animal suffering as much as 99%.   
I find that I’m indifferent between beef and chicken as far as taste, so this is a no-brainer for me. The few times I’m making a recipe that really, truly, can only be done with something sort of chicken-like, Beyond Meat vegetarian fake chicken strips are an almost-tolerable substitute.
2. Use Ethics Offsets By Donating to Animal Charities
Animal-related charities are very effective. Animal Charity Evaluators, a sort of animal version of GiveWell, lists really really impressive impacts for small donations:
These numbers are high, but not impossibly so. For example, the Humane League spent about $50,000 convincing school districts to switch to cage-free eggs and have “Meatless Mondays” at their cafeterias; this resulted in about 3.2 million fewer meat-containing lunches, meaning several hundreds of thousands of chickens saved.
Okay. If you followed the advice in Part 1 and switched to beef, you’re currently killing 0.6 animals per year. If you donate six cents per year to animal-related charities, you’re animal-neutral. Donating $0.06 sounds…a lot easier than being vegetarian for a year? 
Or donate $60, and save more animals than an entire village full of vegetarians. At this point it’s starting to look like maybe personal vegetarianism is more of a symbolic/non-consequentialist decision in comparison, and a meat-eater with a little pocket change to spare can bask in near-unlimited moral superiority even to their most scrupulously vegan friends. Is this too good to be true?
One reason it might be too good to be true is that Animal Charity Evaluators is overly optimistic. But it would be really hard for their optimism to change this strategy substantially. Suppose that they were off by an order of magnitude, and you only save one animal per dollar. You can still offset an entire year’s beef-eating for $0.60. Even if they’re off by three orders of magnitude and it takes $60 to offset a year of eating beef, most people would probably still rather pay sixty bucks than become vegetarian.
A more serious complaint is that this strategy is hypocritical or self-defeating. After all, it looks like most of the gain from these charities comes from convincing other people to be vegetarians. From a Kantian point of view, “try to get other people to become vegetarian without being one yourself” isn’t universalizable; if everyone did it, there would be nobody to actually be the vegetarians! Is it ethical for non-vegetarians to try to spread vegetarianism among other people? Here are four arguments that it is:
First, consequentialism. From a consequentialist point of view, “is it okay to cause a good thing to happen even if…” always gets answered yes. Do you save the animals? Yes? Then what’s the problem? The true consequentialist doesn’t even understand the question.
Second, these charities don’t necessarily demand people become full vegetarians. They may recommend that people cut down on the amount of meat they eat, or switch from chicken to beef as in Part 1, or support laws enforcing more humane living conditions for farm animals. Some evidence supports asking meat-eaters to cut down on meat as the most effective form of animal outreach. A non-vegetarian who has taken some of these steps themselves can support these without worrying about hypocrisy.
Third, your situation is not necessarily the same as other people’s situations. One reason I’m not a vegetarian is that I really really hate vegetables. Other people might love vegetables and just need a little push to have more of them. I can endorse that people become vegetarian if it is easy for them without necessarily endorsing vegetarianism for myself.
Fourth, and I think most important, the economics check out. Instead of universalizing the principle “become vegetarian”, suppose we tried to universalize the principle “find some way to be animal-neutral,” that is, live your life in such a way that on net you are not killing animals. And suppose everyone knew there were two strategies for doing this: either become vegetarian yourself, or offset your lifestyle by donating to advocacy organizations that convert other people to do so.
And suppose that, upon hearing that it only takes a $60 donation to offset their lifestyles, 90% of people choose the donation rather than the personal conversion. This makes the cost of outreach go up. That is, when I donate my $60, the advocacy organization uses it to convert Alice, who decides to donate $60 herself, which the advocacy organization uses to convert Bob, who decides to donate $60 himself, which the organization uses to convert Carol…and so on to the tenth person, who finally decides to become vegetarian themselves. If this happened, our premise that it takes the charity $60 to convert one new vegetarian would be false. In fact it takes them 10 donations of $60, or $600.
As long as people know that they have the option of offsetting via donation, the possibility that people would rather donate than become vegetarian themselves is priced into the cost of the offset. That means that if the cost of an offset is currently $60, it’s because we’re hitting people for whom $60 is genuinely their reserve price; they prefer becoming vegetarian to paying a $60 offset (probably for moral/symbolic reasons). These people are low-hanging fruit; once they’re exhausted, the offset price will rise, and people for whom vegetarianism is only a mild inconvenience will find themselves preferring to become vegetarian themselves rather than paying. Once even the middle-hanging fruit is exhausted, the price of the offset will be prohibitive and only the people for whom vegetarianism is an extraordinary inconvenience will continue to take that route. Once there are no more potential vegetarians left to convert, the offset cost will become the cost of saving animals via political action, improved technology (eg cultured meat), or changes to farming conditions.
This dynamic becomes even more interesting if you add the (unjustifiable but interesting) assumption that anyone not becoming vegetarian themselves is required to offset their choice by converting two other people to vegetarianism. Then you get a sort of virtuous Ponzi scheme which ends with a lot of vegetarians (albeit not necessarily in a reasonable amount of time).
I try to donate some money to an effective animal charity each year, above and beyond what I’ve pledged to donate for other reasons, in order to compensate for the remaining meat I refuse to cut out of my diet.
1. I use the term “kill” because it’s a simple way of looking at things, but most of the moral cost of eating meat is causing the animals to spend years living in terrible suffering on factory farms. The actual killing is probably a mercy in comparison. When I say that something “prevents forty animals from being killed”, the longer and more accurate version might be “prevents forty animals from coming into existence, suffering intensely, and then being killed”. This does raise some more philosophical questions like whether it’s better to live a life of terrible suffering than to never be born at all, but I’m really comfortable answering that one with “no”.
2. This same argument comes out against eating other small animals like fish. Although in theory wild-caught fish ought to live okay lives and potentially be more ethically acceptable than farm-raised animals, given limited wild-catching ability each wild-caught fish eaten may deplete a fixed number of them and push other people to eat farm-raised fish instead.
3. Eggs raise some of the same issues as chickens, and Julia Galef suggests eggs are one of the worst things you can eat. I think her assessment is pessimistic; eggs are terrible on a calorie-for-calorie basis, but if we’re talking about which animal products to urge people to give up, this is counterbalanced by nobody except Gaston getting too many calories from eggs. Someone who eats one egg with breakfast every day kills about one chicken a year; somebody who has a chicken dinner every other night kills about forty chickens a year. Although egg chickens probably lead worse lives than meat chickens, the difference isn’t overwhelming. Avoiding incidental egg consumption like the eggs in baked goods is hard and probably not the highest-value pro-animal intervention given the low number of eggs involved.
4. This analysis neglects consideration of whether cows, being bigger-brained and more “evolutionarily advanced” than chickens or fish, might have greater moral value. I don’t know how to deal with that question, except that it would surprise me if they had more than forty times the moral value.
5. The existence of supposed humane animal products (“Free range eggs!” “Pasture-fed cows!”) complicates this a little bit. The unanimous opinion of people who know about this sort of thing is that free range eggs are kind of a scam; regulations only specify that these chickens must have “access” to the outdoors, but farmers exploit the letter of the law to cram thousands of chickens into industrial barns with a single tiny door to a couple-square-foot cement yard that the overwhelming majority of the chickens never even see. “Cage-free” chickens or eggs seem probably better than the alternative but still pretty horrible. “Pasture-fed beef” usually does involve a pasture in some way and is not a total scam but is probably not as nice as you would think. I try to buy pasture-raised free-range cows, and I think that the slightly higher standards of humane beef over humane chicken make another good argument in favor of beef consumption, but I try not to fool myself into thinking that this decision alone goes especially far.
6. If you also eat chicken, the offset cost rises to $4.