Vegetarianism for Meat-Eaters

[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 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. [1] [2]

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%. [3] [4] [5]

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


I talked about this before in Ethics Offsets, but I think the original argument comes from Katja Grace.

Animal-related charities are very effective. Animal Charity Evaluators, a sort of animal version of GiveWell, lists really really impressive impacts for small donations:

Animal Equality: 11 animal lives saved per dollar
Mercy For Animals: 9 animal lives saved per dollar
Humane League: 3 animal lives saved per dollar

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? [6]

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.

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878 Responses to Vegetarianism for Meat-Eaters

  1. Ben Smith says:

    I’m considering reverting to light beef-eating from a vegetarian+fish diet based on this post.

    One reason to not do that is perhaps the signalling I’m doing from not eating meat could make not eating meat much more valuable than my own not eating meat. If every year I don’t eat meat influences 1 person to not eat meat and two more to reduce their intake by half, and every year *those* people have similar impact on their peers, it could add up to a substantial difference over time.

  2. qa4wegsx says:

    Does this still hold true if my meat eating includes ordering “three filet mignons on a plate” at a restaurant?

  3. Amy Isler Gibson says:

    I love your writing, you are my favorite blogger. But you hate vegetables? Really disappointing. And judgemental of me I suppose. You need to find a cook good at reintroducing you to vegetables. And hey, I want you to live a long life.

  4. Anony says:

    What about the difference in CO2/methan/.. production between cows and chickens? Doesn’t the world health factor into it as well?

  5. Peter Gerdes says:

    It really bothers me that we have no one advocating for the simple obvious solution to the problem of animal cruelty.

    Drug the fucking animals we raise for food so they don’t experience pain!

  6. jeff says:

    It’s worth noting that you haven’t counted the difference in age between the animals. 4 months of suffering (the best I can tell for the average age at slaughter of a chicken) vs. 16 months of suffering (again, cows) means that your 42-to-0.6 ratio needs to be revised to 10.25-0.6. If you also wish to make a calculation on the difference in ability to suffer between a chicken and a cow (about an order of magnitude? unclear), it’s very possible for chickens vs cows to be pretty comparable.

    We should clearly be breeding (much) bigger turkeys.

  7. George says:

    Labels are BS — Get to know your farmer.

    I buy my beef and chicken from a local farm that I have visited in person, and I can buy my meat in full conviction that the animals that I eat lived decent lives and were slaughtered humanely, and I feel no guilt in supporting this local farm with my money. They may not be certified “organic” by the government, but from what I can see, they are as day away from the inhumaneness of the factory system as possible, and that’s what I want to support. Whether eating animals or plants, other life had to make way for us, and that should be respected.

    • George says:

      I forgot to add — beef and chicken from animals that were free to roam on pastured lands also just tastes so much better! Supermarket-aisle meat and eggs kind of gross me out now, and because of the markup is no cheaper than the food I buy direct from the farm.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        “Supermarket-aisle meat and eggs kind of gross me out now, and because of the markup is no cheaper than the food I buy direct from the farm.”

        I know several farms that raise happy meat, but they all have high prices. How does yours keep their prices down?

        • zz says:

          I can’t speak for George, but where I’m from, IIRC, one local farmer gets their calves from a dairy farmer who can only use the other half, and thus are apparently able to sell at supermarket-comparable prices. Although, now I type this, that explanation seems somewhat suspicious: why is dairy farmer not selling male calves at market price?

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      The term legal term ‘organic’ has in many areas been regulatory captured: your people get in positions on the boards and agencies that write the standards. First, widen the standard to include what you are producing already. Then make the approval process so cumbersome and expensive that no one can afford it except operations as large and rich as yours. With the small operations out of the way, set up a test of your own organic line vs your own non-organic line and discover that there is very little difference between them. Generalize.

  8. Lisha says:

    Do we consider whether chickens or cows are more intelligent?

    Edit: Sorry, I just noticed that in the footnotes you said: “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.”

    If anyone has thoughts on how to take into account the intelligence difference, I’d love to hear them.

  9. Bill Walker says:

    Genetic engineering is always the answer to any question.

    “The quadruped Dish of the Day is an Ameglian Major Cow, a ruminant specifically bred to not only have the desire to be eaten, but to be capable of saying so…”

  10. Bill Walker says:

    As it says in the Epic of Gilgamesh:

    The gods kept life for themselves and gave death to mankind. And they gave it to all the other animals too (though the gods really like Bowhead whales). Deer have to be eaten or they’ll destroy the forest (Kaibab Plateau, remember?)

    If you are a deer, do you prefer wolves tearing out your guts, or a simple departure from life via .308 through brain?

    Also if you are a deer, you want maximum efficiency in agriculture, so that there will be room for forest.. that is an argument for eating less meat. It’s also an argument for nuclear power vs. covering up forests with solar cells, and for GM crops, and for a lot of other things not usually in the vegan memeplex.

  11. Bill Walker says:

    Damn, Anonymous beat me to the whale comment.

    BTW, stop eating Bowhead Whales, they live 230 years… we need those cells for research, not for whaleroni pizzas!

  12. Very Strange says:

    I find this take on the morality of eating meat to be very bizarre but nonetheless quite common among omnivores who like to think of themselves as ethically minded.

    If you really feel that eating meat is morally wrong because of the suffering and pain it inflicts on the animals (and it is unequivocally the case that virtually all meat products are the result of murder), then why are you eating any meat at all? You don’t need meat for sustenance, vegetarians can be perfectly healthy. If it’s because you think meat tastes really good despite being morally wrong, that would seem to show a weakness of character. I think what is more likely for most meat eaters who find themselves faced with this dilemma is that they feel like they’re SUPPOSED to feel bad for eating animals, whether or not they actually do. This results in the half-measures like trying to justify the number of animals you’re causing to be murdered every year and paying what is essentially an indulgence to animal charities. There’s a sense of guilt for eating meat because they’ve been told that causing pain and suffering (of humans) is wrong from a young age. They quite naturally apply this moral imperative to other animals as well. Except it doesn’t. It is self-evident from nature that animals kill and eat other animals, from your adorable cat that brings home mice and birds to large predators that roam the wild. There is no reason to think that participating in the cycle of life is morally wrong or unnatural. In fact it is quite common for members of the same species to protect each other and yet hunt other animals.

    But regardless of what other animals do, people have to make their own moral choices. If you still believe that there is something morally wrong about murdering animals, you should not eat meat period. If you don’t really think it’s morally wrong but feel as though you should feel guilty, then stop guilt tripping yourself. Accept that eating meat is perfectly natural and that the moral absolutes of not causing pain and suffering are social constructions that arise out of a desire for self-preservation and need not be carried over to other species.

    • Raemon says:

      I think eating meat is morally wrong. It’s also a lot of effort to stop doing so, and the effort spent on not doing so could be spent on things.

      If you don’t believe that it requires effort for some people to not eat meat, you’re not understanding ethical omnivores very well.

      • Jiro says:

        You would most likely not make this argument about a serial killer (of humans) fwho finds it difficult to stop killing. You would also not make it about, say, racism or someone who beats his children.

  13. Ronny says:

    Don’t you think cows are more likely vehicles of value than chickens? Or maybe, cows actually do carry more value than chickens (but chickens still carry some)?

  14. Alternatives funding says:

    Meat alternatives is the most serious candidate for something that will stop the nightmare unleashed by factory farming.

    Considering that you are doing calculations, including this is crucial. If possible, please write about this.

    There are so many benefits – reduced suffering for animals, land usage, emissions. Given this, the amount of funding is too low.

    Things would go a lot faster if we had a place where people and organizations could donate money to, a organization which has competent people evaluating different research groups (instead of people picking groups without knowledge), channeling money to these groups, organizing conferences which improves the learning process in the field and popularizing existing alternatives (some of this is being done already by hiring chefs and preparing recipes).

    Of course, till we get an alternative, reducing meat consumption or donating to campaigns is a good thing.

    • Raemon says:

      Animal Charity Evaluators exists. It’s the (currently base thing we have) for a Givewell for animal welfare.

  15. Ethan says:

    I’ve always found the calculations for ethics to be really hard. I remember taking an ethics class in college, and deciding it’s impossible to have a logically consistent ethics system with practical implications. That might be a bit too cynical, but it seems that whenever I dig into ethical questions, there’s a bunch of variables I can’t make sense of.

    How much value does a chicken life have versus there not being a chicken in the first place? If we all stopped eating chicken, the chicken population would rapidly drop to zero, because humans don’t have reason to raise them any more and chickens don’t survive in the wild. Is a suffering chicken better or worse than no chicken at all? Generally, what moral value can we put on animals that are genetically optimized to be eaten by us, and can’t survive in the wild?

    What about the happiness and health I get from eating chicken? How can I compare a human’s happiness to the suffering of a chicken? Surely a human life is worth a million chicken lives, so is a small amount of human happiness worth at least 1 chicken life? If I ate beef instead of chicken, I would probably die sooner due to the unhealthly stuff in beef. Is shortening my life, even by a miniscule fraction, worth the life of a chicken?

    How do we know plants don’t suffer too? They don’t have brains made of neurons, but they have chemical processes that are just as much “pain”. Cut a branch off a tree and it bleeds, how can we say that’s not suffering?

  16. SoerenMind says:

    Cow brains weigh ~100x as much as chicken brains.

    So if you think that moral significance is proportional brain size that might just about make up the difference in body weight. There’s reason to think that birds have a higher number of neurons p/kg though. Can’t find the source right now, but this might be interesting:

    Brian Tomasik has some thoughts on brain size and moral significance too:

  17. jeff says:

    This is a great reason why we should bring back the idea of raising hippos for food:

    Given that the average male hippo weighs 3300lbs, as oppsed to the average male steer, at 2500.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I have a (possibly very naiive) question regarding utilitarianism.

    Why is it that utilitarianism is taken to mean maximizing everyone’s utility – in whatever precise sense you take that? The arguments that utility not rights is what matters are quite convincing, but the jump from there to “you should care about everyone’s utility equally” eludes me. Having been sold on the utility metric, could a person not say, “okay, I’ll try to maximize people’s utility, relative to how much I care about them – so I’ll work to give myself and my friends and family lots of utility, people I don’t know some utility; in a tradeoff between lots of utility for people I don’t care about versus a little utility for people I do, I would not obviously choose the former unless the difference was great enough”?

    It seems like what is described here as utilitarianism is a combination of utility-as-correct-yardstick and the idea that you ought to care about some form of overall utility rather than utility you actually do care about. Could it be that the failure of e.g. Scott to donate all of his income to the Third World is because the argument for the first of these is strong while the argument for the second isn’t, but both have been treated as part of a single package, perhaps unreasonably?

    • Nita says:

      The word was invented by Jeremy Bentham, who believed that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. The alternative view you described is called egoism.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you. I’m not sure this completely resolves my problem though.

        1. Egoism is described as a subcategory of consequentialism, comparable with utilitarianism in this regard. But what I described could involve consideration for utility or for rights. For example a person could be more concerned about violations of the rights of their family than of strangers. If egoism is a subset of consequentialism then I don’t see how what I’m talking about can be egoism since it can work just as well for deontological ethics.

        2. I’m not talking about pursuing your self-interest, just of weighting different people differently. You could reply that you’re obviously pursuing your self interest by helping people you like. But I don’t see why you couldn’t be helping people you like more than it is in your self interest to do. Or alternatively, if you insist that any helping of people you like must be perfectly selfish, why utilitarianism as you describe – valuing everyone’s utility equally – would not therefore also be perfectly selfish. In other words, either you can violate your self interest to an extent, in which case helping your friends and helping the Third World can both be non-selfish, or you can’t, in which case both are selfish.

        I admit I had not read up on utilitarianism formally, only learned what it is from lots of reading blogs like this one, and their comments. It would be a shame if the useful concept of utility were inextricably wrapped up with the idea that everyone’s utility ought to be valued equally.

        • Nita says:

          1. Well, you didn’t mention rights or duties in your original comment. You said, “okay, I’ll try to maximize people’s utility, relative to how much I care about them”.

          Hopefully, one of the resident philosophy experts will tell us what the deontological version of this would be.

          2. No one’s calling anyone selfish or selfless. Utilitarianism, egoism and other moral theories try to answer the question “what is the morally right thing to do?”. If you believe that every person should weigh the interests of others according to how much they care, your views are closer to egoism than utilitarianism.

          It would be a shame if the useful concept of utility were inextricably wrapped up with the idea that everyone’s utility ought to be valued equally.

          Could you describe the essence of the concept of utility, as you understand it?

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: re: 1. Sorry about that. I rewrote part of the post, didn’t realise I had removed the part that made it explicit.

            Re: re: 2. The usual way, I think – like happiness but less specific. Happiness and comfort and personal satisfaction and all that. Wikipedia goes with “the well-being of sentient entities” which I wouldn’t dispute.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        @ Nita

        Your link leads to Wikipedia’s “ethical egoism”, which (unless I’ve missed it) talks about a number of somewhat opposed things rather than what anonymous described as: “I’ll try to maximize people’s utility, relative to how much I care about them – so I’ll work to give myself and my friends and family lots of utility, people I don’t know some utility”.

        The article has a great (positive) section on Ayn Rand, though.

        • Nita says:

          To be honest, I don’t quite see the difference between “help the people you care about” and “do whatever you want”. Presumably, everyone already is motivated to take care of those they care about, so what would imposing it as a moral duty change?

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            Because, when speaking to normal human beings not in the internet, one is seen as reasonable and the other makes you look like an asshole.

          • Nita says:

            Believe it or not, moral skepticism and intuitionism are respectable ethical views frequently discussed by human beings off the internet.

            Also, if someone said “sure, I believe in human rights, but I don’t care about you, so you don’t get any” — would you think they were being reasonable or an asshole?

          • Anonymous says:


            It’s perfectly possible to help people you care about to a greater extent than how much you want to for just your own benefit. If you don’t agree then I think you would have to describe all helping of people, even giving all your income to the Third World, as for your own benefit, or “just doing whatever you want” or similar.

            I’m not trying to confidently state what people’s moral duty is, just that as far as I can tell, a concern for utility can mesh with care weightings other than “everyone is equally important”.

          • Nita says:

            It’s perfectly possible to help people you care about to a greater extent than how much you want to for just your own benefit.

            I suppose it would be possible — but then you have to come up with a rule for weighing the utility of different individuals. For common kinds of utilitarians, the usual rules are “weigh everyone* equally” or “weigh the welfare of beings according to their capacity for suffering / happiness”.

            * everyone in the set of beings assumed to be morally relevant

            Also, some utilitarians seem to believe that although everyone matters equally, in practice you should mostly help those you care about, because you’re better informed of their needs and able to have a greater impact.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Nita
            [Some utilitarians seem to think that] in practice you should mostly help those you care about, because you’re better informed of their needs and able to have a greater impact.

            Yes. Also, if your family knows that you’re sending money they need to far away causes, their feelings will be hurt, so you’re doing them harm. One family member’s resentment can cause friction that damages the whole family.

          • Linch says:

            “One family member’s death from malaria can cause friction that damages the whole family.”

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Linch

            Grief but not necessarily conflict. They can’t demand that one of them bring back the dead.

            Friction is like one family member constantly fighting the battle of “Can’t you even this one month skip your silly nets and get the children some clothes that fit?” And the children making their own demands too, from this money that appears wasted.

          • Linch says:

            I don’t personally think it’s plausible that a)the likelihood of a death in the family will result in significant loss of social cohesion in the family is lower than the likelihood of one family member being particularly altruistic will result in a significantly loss of social cohesion.
            Further, while the special information points would have made sense in Dickens’ time, or even 100 years ago, wealth equality is so extreme now that I do not think it’s plausible that at any of the margins people are usually thinking about, “in practice you should mostly help those you care about, because you’re better informed of their needs and able to have a greater impact.”

            This is true up to and including the individuals documented in Larissa’s book. Simply put, it’s not plausible that your special information will let you generate more than a human QALY for every $100 spent. (And if you think otherwise, I will be very interested in knowing how!) The argument is even more strengthened if you consider farm animals to be a)moral patients and b)to have non-negative moral worth.

            I say this as someone who sometimes eats out, and will give a significant percentage of my income to members of my family. I will not pretend it’s the most utilitarian thing to do, or even morally justifiable. Let’s not delude ourselves.
            For your specific example about clothes, back when my parents were in grad school, I went to elementary school in Newark, NJ, where kids whose parents were on welfare made fun of the quality of my shoes. I was upset back then, but that’s because I had a victimhood complex and the wrong reference class. I objectively had better clothes than at *least* 80% of the world and from the perspective of the universe, it would have been absurd to call 10-yo Linch “underprivileged”

          • Linch says:

            typos, sorry:

            wealth equality->wealth inequality
            b)have non-negative moral worth->live net negative lives

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      + +

      Because, me too. I haven’t found any current name for or treatment of what you describe (which is what I’ve long-time believed), but it is prominent in classical moral systems (see my comment upthread with link to Lewis’s ‘The Abolition of Man’).

    • Rafal Smigrodzki says:

      You are hinting at the key issue here – the question of who or what is included in your in-group, the people/animals/plants whose utility you care about. Adopting utility as a metric in moral reasoning does not fully determine the extent of your in-group, and that’s one of the reasons why various sects of utilitarians come up with diametrically opposed positions on many issues. Vegetarians implicitly or explicitly include all kinds of creatures in their moral reference classes, carnists tend to care about humans only, which means that as a human you should be careful which side you choose. Remember, there are places in India where harming a cow could get you lynched, or worse.

  19. Iajawl says:

    I laughed and then I cried. You are doing it wrong trying to live off bread and Quorn. Over 10 years of being a vegetarian under my belt and I went out today to buy Quorn (the chicken strip ones) just to see what it is like (It is edible but nothing special). I can see why you don’t want to live off it. Anyone who actually wants to be a vegetarian would be well served by investing in some cooking skills, or probably just anyone who likes eating.
    I think your math regarding lives taken per year is based on some wonky premises too. I don’t know how you came up with those figures but none of the meat eaters I know would eat so little. I think two chickens a week would be conservative for many people. I did some quick googling and found the ‘average’ American eating average carcass does leave your figures looking somewhat accurate but I would like to know how you come to them. I think that an average of 180 grams a day is a very low figure so I would really like to know how people come up with what seem like such conservative estimates.
    My second issue is that you don’t address the wastage. For every kilo of meat that gets eaten how much doesn’t. Not all of the animal always gets used and even that which reaches a shopfront or restaurant doesn’t always get eaten. I’m not sure where you would get this information from and how you would distribute it across all of the meat eaters but simply ignoring it throws your already wonky seeming math off even further.

    Also there is the factor of land and water usage and environmental damage. If you take those things into account the ‘moral bill’ might be a little higher again.

  20. Hari Seldon says:

    The one thing that often gets neglected is the sheer number of animals killed during field prep, planting, and harvesting of a vegetarian based diet. This number can be very large even if you only count mammals. Mice, moles, groundhogs, cute little bunnies… all these animals build their homes in fields only to be chopped up by machines at various times during the year. Source: The Secret of Nymh, also I grew up on a farm.

    You can find various arguments on both sides for what the true ratio of mammal deaths:calories is for meat based and vegetarian diets. There is enough leeway in the numbers that proponents on both sides will claim victory and declare the other side thoroughly debunked. You fudge the range of numbers a little one way or the other and… voila… out comes the answer you wanted. That makes me suspect that the true answer is probably very close to being a wash.

    Now, if you want to limit yourself to hand harvested grains and veggies, you win the animal suffering argument but completely lose the calories:acre environmental argument. Human powered prep, planting, and harvest can not even come close to producing what we need to feed the current population. At least not without greatly increasing the cost of food and converting a huge percentage of our economy and land use back to agriculture.

    A herd of cows can convert 30 acres of unusable dry scrub and sagebrush to human useable calories without harming a single critter. Now plow up that same 30 acres and you are going to kill hundreds or thousands of little furries who would prefer to live.

    We really can’t do the math and come up with the right answer here. You are going to have to go with your gut instinct and chalk the remainder of your decision up to social signalling. I am lucky enough to have a freezer of beef that was grazed on family land, lived a beautiful bovine existence and was slaughtered quickly and humanely. I eat it guilt free.

    • Michael says:

      Kudos on your dietary decisions. (well, except when you eat out, but at this point that’s good enough for me.)

      Vegetarians kill many animals animals with grain harvesting. But factory farmed beef is largely agriculturally fed. Meat eating loses in terms of deaths, cruelty AND land usage.

      Cattle which grazes isn’t leading to the death of cute fieldmice, is using land efficiently, (since as you said, it’s using land we otherwise couldn’t,) and isn’t cruel to the animals. Most of the vegetarians here are in favour of such meat.

      Killing fieldmice is shitty, but to adapt your words, they “lived a beautiful rodent existence and were slaughtered quickly and [semi-]humanely.”
      Death-free farming is a straw man. You were just describing how hard it would be to feed the world with hand-harvested grain. If efficiency is important to you, I assume you’re opposed to any meat fed with grains whose acreage could have otherwise gone towards feeding humans directly?

  21. Sesetamhet says:

    Nice analysis! 😀
    I’m wondering if the water crisis in California would shift this calculation much. Cows take A LOT more water than chickens. (And I in fact know a number of vegetarians who don’t eat meat to conserve water, rather than to prevent animal suffering)
    I guess this really only effects conversion rates between various animals like cows and chickens, and cows and whatever animals the charities are saving.

  22. Anon. says:

    The intrinsic value of living is worth 1000 utils. The worst pain imaginable, applied constantly over a decade, is worth -10. There you go, you can eat meat.

    “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

  23. Linch says:

    I note with amusement that if your tastes are similar to mine*, and you’re an ethical vegan for non-deontological reasons, it’s clearly less ethical to spend your luxury food budget on expensive vegan food than on animal products and donating the differential (or even half the differential) to ACE.

    *I like(d) fried chicken and ice cream, I’ve never been a big fan of steak or fancy dining.

  24. Chris says:

    1. As others have pointed out, beef is about the worst possible choice from a standpoint of environmental impact and resource usage, requiring something like 160x the land use per calorie of wheat, rice, etc. and around twice that of chicken, pork, etc. The high cost is offset by subsidies, the elimination of which would be a good step for both animal welfare and climate change prevention.

    2. Plant-based imitation meat products are plentiful these days, and only slightly higher cost (again due largely to beef subsidies and economies of scale for factory farmed meat), so I’m not sure why the elaborate mental gymnastics for rationalizing meat consumption. Perhaps it would actually be more effective to save money by buying cheap meat and donate to animal welfare charities, at least until said charities managed to convert more people, but there’s also the moral offset of contributing to future economies of scale in imitation meat versus contributing to the current ones in factory farming (again supported by what are effectively taxes on vegetarians and near-vegetarians, i.e. meat subsidies). Unless you live in an extremely rural area you should be able to find a vegan version of just about any meat product you desire, and the taste usually isn’t far off, if at all.

    • How is beef subsidized?

      The usual pattern of U.S. agricultural policy has been to push prices up, not down—for instance by paying people not to grow crops or by buying crops and holding them off the market. Is it different for beef?

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Not forwarding this as fact, just more slightly informed speculation, but aren’t cattle grazed on federal lands for the less than market grazing fees fairly commonly?

      • Linch says:

        I don’t have very strong confidence in Chris’s claim, but I know that a)beef requires more water/kg than any other commonly eaten meat* and b)water is not traded in a free market, and the way it’s not traded is heavily tilted in favor of agriculture. Scott had a pretty good article about California water earlier.

        *I’m pretty sure about this, but I’m too lazy to verify very carefully.

        • Nornagest says:

          California water rights (and water rights in the Western states more generally) are not representative of the country or the world: the California water system is a mess of historical contingency and ad-hoccery and prevails mainly because of ignorance, status quo bias, and certain quirks of the electoral system.

          I don’t know if it’s better or worse elsewhere, but I’d expect urban water to be more expensive everywhere water is billed for: you’re paying mainly for infrastructure rather than mass, and urban water distribution systems are pretty heavyweight things compared to drawing your water out of a well or slurping it out of an irrigation ditch.

      • Chris says:

        According to what I could find, it seems the main mechanism is subsidies for commodity crops used as feed for beef, chicken, and other factory farmed meats – primarily corn and soybeans, mostly enjoyed by the largest agricultural producers. Information on direct subsidies for beef was harder to find, ranging from Meat Atlas’s claim* of $18 billion total (from all OECD countries) for beef, $15.3bil for milk, $7.3bil pig, $6.5 poultry, etc. to’s claim of “no subsidies [for] … producers of beef, poultry, and livestock.” Overall it seems the discrepancy is probably in what is considered “direct” since there are so many possible ways meat products can be indirectly subsidized.

        Regardless of what more direct subsidies may exist besides those for corn and soybean feed, the better stuff I could find on it claimed something in the range of $3.9 billion in subsidies per year ($26.5bil from 1997-2005), with ~42.5% of US corn produced being used for animal feed and annual per capita meat consumption rising from 144 lbs in 1950 to 222 lbs in 2010 (up 54%). A 30% change in feed prices was estimated to effect the price of various meats and diary between 4-8%.

        As long as I’m at it, I’d also throw out (an article describing) the study on resource intensiveness of various meats and crops, and the large study done on lower mortality from diets high in vegetables and fruits (up to 7 servings/day). My point being that the social and economic cost of this stuff is almost certainly huge no matter how you cut it, and it clearly seems to be supported by huge subsidies regardless of the exact form they take.

        *Admittedly the name “Meat Atlas” doesn’t inspire confidence, but it seems to be reliable and well-sourced, from what I could gather.

    • Nornagest says:

      Unless you live in an extremely rural area you should be able to find a vegan version of just about any meat product you desire, and the taste usually isn’t far off, if at all.

      I think you’re overbilling the taste there. Now, I’ve had veggie burgers that tasted like mediocre cow, and vegetarian sausages can be edible, though they tend to be dry and mealy. Textured vegetable protein like seitan can work in stir-fry, but meat’s essentially being used for its texture there; it’s inadequate for anything where meaty flavors are important. TVP drumsticks are pretty sad, never mind steak.

      There is no reasonable vegetarian substitute for bacon, ham, organ meats, or oily fish, all of which are important in several cuisines.

      • Urstoff says:

        My general hypothesis is that people who say the taste of meat substitutes isn’t that different are people who never liked meat in the first place. Diet Dr. Pepper doesn’t taste anything like regular Dr. Pepper, and vegan bacon is an atrocity.

        • Linch says:

          Different people have different tastes, literally. IIRC, as many as 30% of Americans can’t taste a certain sugar substitute commonly used in soda. Ie, it doesn’t bind to their taste receptors at all.

          I remember diet soda tasting the exact same as regular soda when I was a kid. But nowadays I literally can’t taste *any* sweetness in diet Mountain Dew or Coke.

          Veggie burgers sometimes taste like normal patties, but I’ve never been that big a fan of beef patties anyway.

          I should try some vegan bacon. I doubt it could possibly taste worse than the original.

        • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

          >Diet Dr. Pepper doesn’t taste anything like regular Dr. Pepper

          Yet they are both awful. And while I tend to agree with you, there really is no accounting for taste. I mean, Scott mentioned being indifferent between cow and chicken, and I, all jokes aside, consider it genuinely baffling. I mean, if all meat tasted like chicken to me, making the switch to vegetarian would be almost trivial.

      • Chris says:

        To correct myself, I’ll agree it’s not always the same, but I’d say the relative difference and amount of sacrifice required is not as great as many make it out to be. Without going into a series of detailed reviews, it does vary from product to product and by the quality you buy. Relatively obscure products can be found too, particularly if you plan ahead (I’ve had vegan shrimp and calamari before, for example). The availability is at least getting better, even for relative specialty food items, and a larger market for the stuff would only accelerate that.

        Also, some of what we like is just what we’ve been trained to like. Had I grown up drinking soy and almond milk instead of regular I’d just think that’s what “milk” was, not view it as something “wrong” if it wasn’t as close to cow’s milk as possible. Admittedly some tastes are going to be considered better in an absolute sense, but weighing the ethical cost versus moderating your meat intake most people could probably make some big improvements without completely ruining their lives. Compared to the OP and related comments which implied a compulsive hatred of vegetables would ruin the entire project, when a large number of imitation products are available and they’re getting better all the time.

    • Urstoff says:

      It’s possible that the bad environmental effects (which you seem to define oddly; resource and land usage? There’s nothing intrinsically harmful about those) would still be offset by the number of animals saved.

  25. Nerus says:

    Interesting analysis! Certainly a new way of thinking.

    A good test of our theories is whether we are willing to extend our ideas to Humans. If the “moral value” of a cow is not considered, and eating 1 cow is considered just as immoral as eating 1 chicken – can we extend this and say that eating 1 Human is just as immoral as eating a cow?

    If it turns out eating one (really large) human can save 50 chickens’ lives, will we allow it?

    Whatever justifications we allow ourselves for eating non-human animals, we must consider applying the same justifications to eating human animals too.

    • Jiro says:

      Whatever justifications we allow ourselves for eating non-human animals, we must consider applying the same justifications to eating human animals too.

      “Whatever justifications we allow ourselves for eating cooked non-human organisms, we must consider applying the same justifications to eating cooked human organisms too.”

      Beware choosing convenient reference classes. Neither the animal version nor the cooked food version is wrong (since they only ask you to consider, and you can always consider and reject), but the animal version contrives a reference class so as to encourage a particular answer.

      And I’m generally suspicious of the term “non-human animals” because of this kind of reference class trick. Give me a reason why I should compare humans to non-human animals but not to non-human multicellular organisms that doesn’t amount for an argument for vegetarianism that you should have made directly without reference class laundering.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        That is an excellent point.

        But doesn’t it apply equally well to Scott’s original example? Does h not accept as a given that 1 cow = 1 chicken in moral weight using some sort of implied reference class that is never defined?

        Given that Neru’s point still seems (somewhat) valid. Assuming humans are in the implied reference class Scott is using seems valid. It’s on Scott to define the reference class adequately, not Neru.

        • Jiro says:

          But doesn’t it apply equally well to Scott’s original example? Does h not accept as a given that 1 cow = 1 chicken in moral weight using some sort of implied reference class that is never defined?

          I don’t think it applies to Scott’s example because similarity of cows and chickens is pretty uncontroversial to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Even people who wouldn’t equate cows and chickens would still consider them similar enough that the difference is in practice only quantitative and it wouldn’t really end up changing the argument much.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            There appear to be multiple examples of people pointing out qualitative differences in cows and chickens (in neurological development) in these very comments.

            It does not seem to me to be anything like obvious or incontrovertible that cows and chickens belong in the same reference class when it comes to moral weight of their intentionally caused deaths, especially when you also want to claim that they can’t be assumed to in the same reference class as humans for reasons of reference class laundering. And ten times so when you want to say that placing humans in the same reference class as cows is tantamount to putting them in a reference class with fruit flies.

          • Jiro says:

            It does not seem to me to be anything like obvious or incontrovertible that cows and chickens belong in the same reference class when it comes to moral weight of their intentionally caused deaths

            It’s a matter of practicality. You won’t find very many people who put them in different classes that differ more than quantitatively. There are people who will say that cows have enough neurological differences from chickens that killing one cow is equivalent to killing 20 chickens.

            But there aren’t people who will say that killing one cow is immoral but killing one chicken is moral. There’s nothing logically impossible about that. It’s perfectly consistent to say “cows have a neurological difference from chickens such that eating chickens is moral but not eating cows”. It’s just that the number of actual people who will say that approaches zero.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “But there aren’t people who will say that killing one cow is immoral but killing one chicken is moral.”

            A billion people in India would like a word with you.

            That’s a flippant answer, but I also think it points out the issue with what you are trying to smuggle in. Before you can put things in reference classes, you need to define the classes, which you have not done. The only property I know about it is that Jiro think cows and chickens both belong in it.

            Cows are far more sophisticated neurologically than chickens. Cows are mammals and therefore closer to humans in an evolutionary sense. Cows have fur and big eyes compared to their head and evoke human love for babies. Not wanting to eat mammals is definitely a thing.

            In fact, my guess is whole ton of kids start off a vegetarian phase by not wanting to eat cows. I know my daughter did.

          • Jiro says:

            A billion people in India would like a word with you.

            Ignoring the exact number 1 billion, that’s literally correct, but of course what I meant was “people of the type to whom the argument was addressed”.

            The only property I know about it is that Jiro think cows and chickens both belong in it.

            It’s a property relative to the audience. For an audience that consists of the type of people who post to blogs like this, everyone either thinks cows and chickens are both okay to eat, or thinks that cows and chickens are both not okay to eat, and for the same reasons, although possibly to different degrees. Few, probably no, people in the audience are either one of those billion Indians or one of those kids.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Were you agreeing or disagreeing with Neru originally? I originally thought that you were disagreeing with him, but now I’m actually not sure.

            I also thought you were making a general argument, not a “only-readership-of-this-blog argument”.

            You also seem to be disregarding the evidence that people are arguing in this comment section that there is a Schelling fence that separates some multi-cellular organisms from others in terms of neuro-complexity that makes consumption of some organisms moral and others not moral. Otherwise even plants are out.

            I don’t take it as a given that the proper place for that fence isn’t between cows and chickens, and I also don’t think it’s obvious that it the most likely place for it is on one side or the other of them both.

            I don’t think I am the only one here making arguments that are similar to this.

            Part of this issue, to me, is around all-awareness. I don’t think this can be categorized as a binary, but rather an analogue. That fact, only with a number of other analog properties, like pain sensation, create quite a complex picture.

            Then you contemplate the fact of the existence of carnivores, and there necessity in the wild and this further complicates matters.

            I only say this as a means of saying that I think there exist good arguments that put the fence between chickens and cows (even though I don’t put it there currently) and I think people are making them, either explicitly or implicitly.

    • Jiro says:

      HBC: I was disagreeing with him. He tried to generalkize from eating non-human animals to eating humans. My reply is that choosing a reference class set up that way is arbitrary, and he doesn’t choose, for instance, multicellular creatures or creatures eaten by cooking.

      I was making a blog argument. He was trying to convince readers of this blog that they should generalize in the above way; my reply to an argument aimed at readers of this blog is also aimed at readers of this blog.

      The Schelling fence you point to is not in general use. It is either used only by vegetarians or by nobody, depending on exactly which fence you mean. Furthermore, arguing that the neurology of animals carries moral weight is not the same thing as arguing that the neuoroogy of animals makes for a good Schelling fence.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Well, given that, here is where I get confused.

        What is your reasoning for automatically putting humans in a separate reference class from all other multi-cellular organisms? You never lay it out, rather you just assume it. That is the heart of your disagreement with Neru, and yet your criticism of him could equally well apply to your own.

        I think your argument is basically “Well, most people in the world do, so that’s where it should be, unless you spell out a reason why it shouldn’t be like that.”

        But then you explicitly reject arguments that point out that lots of people in the world don’t put humans alone in that reference class as far as eating meat is concerned. Various societies put cows, horse, dogs, cats and any other creature that might be a pet in the same reference class.

        Your counter to that is that you only mean the argument to apply to people on this blog. But that becomes a circular argument.

        Once you try and lay out why eating a cow is moral, but eating a dog or a gerbil is not (and you will find plenty of people who will say that it is wrong to eat dog meat) you have to come to grips with the fact that the actual general reference class isn’t the one you are assuming.

        I don’t deny that people are generally put in a separate reference class from animals for lots of things. But I don’t think “meat eating” is one where you can assume it.

      • Jiro says:

        What is your reasoning for automatically putting humans in a separate reference class from all other multi-cellular organisms?

        Multi-cellular organisms is actually my example; I don’t think it’s a good class, but I was comparing it to “non-human animals” which I also don’t think is a good class.

        Ignoring that, you should avoid “non-human animals” because using this reference class requires an assumption that is basically a separate argument for vegetarianism. You should make this argument directly, not try to sneak it past the radar in your choice of reference class.

        But then you explicitly reject arguments that point out that lots of people in the world don’t put humans alone in that reference class as far as eating meat is concerned.

        The audience of the argument is not “people in the world”, it’s rational people on this blog. Nobody on this blog, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, distinguishes between eating cows and chickens, or dogs and chickens, on an ethical basis. The meat-eaters consider them all okay; the vegetarians consider them all wrong (though possibly to different degrees). Some people will eat dogs but not chickens, but when questioned, will admit that it’s not actually a question of morality. The average man on the street, of course, thinks that eating dog is immoral, but the average man on the street is not on this blog.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        But Neru was arguing for a reference class that included humans with all the others. You actually seem to be in agreement with him.

        You also can’t just assume that all the readers on this blog lump cows and chickens together and think it is moral to eat dog. I actually wouldn’t eat dog, nor horse, nor any other working animal, and I don’t think it moral to do so in our society. I have trouble condemning societies that do eat dog, but this has more to do with the tensions between various rights, than a general acceptance that it’s ok.

        • Jiro says:

          But Neru was arguing for a reference class that included humans with all the others. You actually seem to be in agreement with him.

          No, I’m not. Neru is comparing two classes. He thinks that “human and nonhuman animals” is a good class and compared it to Scott’s “cows and chickens” class.

          I pointed out that there is disagreement on “human and nonhuman animals”, disagreement which amounts to sneaking in an argument for vegetarianism, but there is no similar disagreement on “cows and chickens”. Thus, HBC’s attempt to compare these classes doesn’t work.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Now I am really confused. Neru said this: “Whatever justifications we allow ourselves for eating non-human animals, we must consider applying the same justifications to eating human animals too.”

            To me that is clearly saying that humans should be considered to be in the reference class “animals”, not that there are two classes, human animals and non-human animals.

            In other words, he is “sneaking in” the argument for vegetarianism by including humans in the reference class “animals”, rather than tacitly and implicitly assuming that humans belong in their own reference class, separate from other animals. You are the one who wants humans in their own reference class.

            Put in another way, the two reference classes he wants to apply are “animals” and “vegetables” (we don’t eat rocks, so I think we can dispense with “minerals” 😉

            I agree that, by assuming the reference class should be animals, he is arguing by reference class, rather than by property. But I don’t see where you get to object to argument-by-reference-class-animal as not property based, when “non-human animal” is just as much of a reference class.

            We may just be treading over the same ground and going round in circles. If you want the last word, feel free.

          • Jiro says:

            In other words, he is “sneaking in” the argument for vegetarianism by including humans in the reference class “animals”, rather than tacitly and implicitly assuming that humans belong in their own reference class, separate from other animals. .

            Every reference class is based on some assumptions. What is wrong here is using the reference class to sneak in assumptions that are assumptions relative to the audience that he is trying to convince. For an audience that eats meat, putting humans and non-humans in separate reference classes doesn’t use such an assumption; putting them in the same reference class does.

            You are the one who wants humans in their own reference class.

            I am not trying to minimize the number of reference classes, so I don’t find this to be a problem.

  26. Michael Chonoles says:

    One thing most of these discussions forget to discuss, is that if we all stop eating a particular animal. That animal is eventually doomed to distinction, certainly with an ever decreasing population. Except for animal byproducts that are useful (wool, leather, etc.). For example, if no-one ate beef anymore, the amount of cattle in the US would drop precipitously. Perhaps not in India, but all the cattle-raising ranches would close down. From a moral point of view, the cattle would not have the same suffering, but the cattle would be non-existent.

    If there were a Chief Cow, it might decide that suffering is preferable to extinction. It can certainly be argued that the it was an evolutionary success strategy for animals to taste good.

    • Deiseach says:

      We might treat cattle as we treat horses, not quite pets in the same way dogs and cats are, but no longer necessary for their labour (or, in the case of cattle in the new all-vegetarian world, their milk, meat, leather and other by-products).

      So limited numbers of different breeds of cattle kept as show animals/quasi-pets might well remain but you’re correct that the current high numbers of dairy and beef cattle would not and could not be maintained with no market to pay for themselves.

      Horse racing is an industry that generates a lot of money, though, so I don’t know what cattle would do to fill a similar niche (I doubt rodeos, even if they were permitted to survive, would be anything on the same scale).

    • Michael says:

      People talk constantly about limiting human overpopulation because of all the harm it causes. But suddenly when the prospect of less pigs facing a lifetime of suffering comes up, ensuring a high population becomes a pressing moral concern.

      The argument seems disingenuous to me.

      On a side note, invoking the spectre of extinction is a straw man. Do you honestly think a vegetarian world wouldn’t contain a single cattle ranch? Beyond that, the utilitarian brand of vegetarianism you’re most likely to encounter here is against the excess suffering of food animals, not against eating them in principle. if a cow had a happy life I have no objection to eating it.

      • Salem says:

        People talk constantly about limiting human overpopulation because of all the harm it causes. But suddenly when the prospect of less pigs facing a lifetime of suffering comes up, ensuring a high population becomes a pressing moral concern.

        Have you considered the possibility that these are two different sets of “people”?

        In my experience, the idiots who talk about human overpopulation are disproportionately likely to be vegetarian, so I don’t see any contradiction here.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          “In my experience, the idiots who”

          Not helpful. Fails all 3 gates.

          • houseboatonstyx says:


            Imo that wording is actively harmful. Whether or not the Charity gate officially applies to third parties, this sort of gratuitous slur throws grit into the discussion.

            Zie might have a point about there being more than one set of speakers involved, though.

  27. Jason GL says:

    Is anyone aware of any websites that attempt to rank or review restaurants based on how humanely they source their meat/poultry/seafood? I often find myself looking for, e.g., a Thai restaurant near Berkeley that serves pasture-raised meat, and I’m sure there is one, but I usually have no idea how to find it other than by picking a dozen Thai restaurants at random at calling them up to see what kind of meat they serve.

    If I can’t find a website like that, I’ll probably build my own — let me know if you have suggestions for what you would like the website to include.

  28. Samalamalam says:

    One very easy fix for making a carnivorous lifestyle much more ethical would seem to be switching to lamb and mutton instead of beef, chicken and pork. The vast majority of sheep are raised in genuinely ‘free range’ conditions and usually on land which has little practical use other than grazing.

  29. Rafal Smigrodzki says:

    I am a dog person. There is hardly anything nicer than seeing my doggie frantically wag his tail when I come back home. But, the dog is not a person. It is not a member of my in-group. I would sell it for vivisection, if needed to spare my daughter pain or other insults.

    So much confusion and a fair amount of evil happens when people, for various reasons, fail to construct their in-groups carefully. Animals are not in my in-group. They are not moral subjects, although animal welfare is instrumentally important, for example in signaling. I would not trust someone who likes kicking his dog. Maybe he would kick humans, too.

    Seriously, would you deny the tasty flesh of cows to your daughter, knowing that a vegan diet may stunt her intelligence? Would you refuse to sacrifice a million rats for the life of one child?

    I am made uneasy by arguments which treat above questions as if they were moral conundrums. Universalist ethics is an internally inconsistent figment of imagination. There is no ethics without an in-group for an audience.

    And I don’t trust vegans. Would they kill me to save a million chickens?

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      …so vegan/vegetarianism is basically Pascal’s Mugging but with moral worth replacing probability.

      • Froolow says:

        People are saying this throughout the thread, and it simply isn’t true!

        Pascal’s Mugging is not *any* situation where you have a high-probability low-payoff on one side and a low-probability high-payoff on the other. It specifically relies on the use of astronomically small probabilities to drive a conclusion which is unsustainable. In particular, it relies on the privileging of one astronomically unlikely hypothesis above a sea of other astronomically unlikely hypotheses. Specifically, Pascal’s Mugging relies on a situation where Pascal can say to you, “I have no answer to your objection, but I arbitrarily raise the payoffs such that your objection is overcome”.

        Vegetarianism is only superficially like Pascal’s Mugging, in the sense that it is asking you to make a high-payoff choice on one end and a low-payoff choice on the other. If (not iff) animals are morally important, you should not eat them. If animals are morally unimportant and you choose to eat them, you have a tiny utility increment (tiny in comparison to not eating the animal and eating something else, not in comparison to eating nothing). But the probabilities are nowhere near Pascal Mugging levels – I reckon the probability that animals are morally important is better than chance; maybe as high as 80% or 90%. Almost every time we’ve learned new facts about animal neurology it has been in the direction of ‘more humanlike’.

        So we have a specific reason to believe ‘animals have moral worth’ is a non-arbitrary hypothesis, Pascal has no ability to raise the payoff or the probabilities* and at any reasonable set of values you shouldn’t end up below 1% probability for anything you attempt to calculate.

        * Suppose you learned a new fact about animals that suggested they were just dumb walking meat with no moral importance. If this were a Mugging situation, Pascal could raise the payoff – convincing you that the less likely it was that animals were morally important, the more morally important they were. That seems impossible, and anyway is not what vegetarians argue.

        • Rafal Smigrodzki says:

          Yes, you are right, vegetarianism is not a Pascal’s mugging.

          Pascal’s wager is about payoffs in betting on the existence of a specific type of god, which is an epistemic problem, not a moral one. Pascal says you are correct vs. incorrect about the existence of god, not virtuous vs. evil.

          Vegan preening is about claiming moral superiority, with only some minor material claims tacked on as needed for bamboozling opponents in discussions.

          The characteristic feature of purely moral conflicts is that both sides could agree on all claims about material facts (animals suffer, animals don’t suffer, animals are tasty, meat taste is disgusting, eating meat kills you, eating meat helps your brain, etc.) and still reciprocally see each other’s behavior as despicable and evil. It’s all about the righteous fire in your chest, the more-or-less reasoned words rattling around in your skull are just a distraction.

      • Jiro says:

        Pascal has no ability to raise the payoff or the probabilities

        Says who?

        It is vague and difficult to calculate, to the extent where trying to come up with a figure including error bars will get you a range that for all practical purposes is unlimited. The overall probability, which depends on a weighted average of the utility in the range, is also for all practical purposes unlimited in size. This lets the vegetarian always win by Pascal mugging.

        And this is actually happening, right here. The vegetarian points out that given the probability and the loss in utility, the damage from eating meat is huge. But if your range is nearly unlimited, you’re always going to *get* a huge figure for the damage.

        It is true that the vegetarian can’t literally raise the size of the effect to an unlimited level, but having a range that already is nearly unlimited accomplishes the same thing.

  30. Glimmervoid says:

    If we apply x-risk style logic and look towards not only saving animals in the now but also the future, heavy investment in deathless meat seems best. This could be ‘vat-grown’ meat or just fake meat which is really as good as the real thing.

    Once we have deathless meat which is as good as the real thing, the moral case for not killing animals becomes incredibly strong. If we go future and invest in making deathless meat cheaper than the real thing, the economic case eclipses even that.

    Deathless meat developed per the above would all but wipe out killing animals for food.

  31. If you want to buy eggs from genuinely humanely raised chickens, the Cornucopia Institute provides a scorecard where you can see, in quite a bit of detail, how the chickens are treated. I think the highest-rated producers meet standards high enough that you will probably not mind purchasing eggs from them.

    You can also buy, if you are so inclined, grass-fed bison meat, which should cause even less suffering than beef (if one bison produces more meat than one cow).

    (I saw the bison meat after looking at the website of one of the egg producers on the Cornucopia institute, figuring that if the farm is careful about chickens and eggs, they may show above-average care in raising other animals as well. I’ve seen beef products on their other egg producers’ websites as well.)

  32. Deiseach says:

    Scott, do you calculate any statistics on the growth of your comments section?

    Intensive feed-lot raised comments versus free grazing pasture comments? 🙂

  33. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    I suspect that by paying bloodmouth-carnists to abstain from meat, p(hilosophical)-vegetarians risk setting up perverse incentives (a la the Cobra Effect).

    For example, I know of two vegetarians who dislike the taste of meat. They abstain not on moral grounds, but gustatory grounds. Under the offset scheme, each could dishonestly claim carnivore status then sell their carnist-creds to a well-meaning p-vegetarian. This may not be perfectly identical to the cobra example. But the incentives are similarly perverse because the two vegetarians were avoiding meat to begin with, except now they’re taking your money too.

    Also, let’s extrapolate leftward drift. Suppose in the future, both vegetarianism and the offset scheme gain popularity. Exactly half the population (Group A) is paying the other half (Group B) to not eat meat. How many in Group B would’ve been vegetarian of their own volition? How many in Group A would’ve been guilt tripped into actual vegetarianism if not for the indulgences offsets?


    Cain already tried vegetable-related sacrificial-offerings. He snapped and killed a guy. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

    • Deiseach says:

      Cain as the patron saint of vegetarians makes me laugh. I’m sorry, vegetarians. This is not sneering at you, honest.

      If you prefer a literary hero, then Tolkien’s Beren is canonically vegetarian, and for moral equivalence grounds : “(B)ut he became the friend of birds and beasts, and they aided them, and did not betray him, and from that time forth he ate no flesh nor slew any living thing that was not in the service of Morgoth.”

      Beorn in “The Hobbit” is also a vegetarian (though he does eat honey and dairy products): “He lives in an oak-wood and has a great wooden house; and as a man he keeps cattle and horses which are nearly as marvolous as himself. They work for him and talk to him. He does not eat eat them; neither does he hunt or eat wild animals. He keeps hives of great fierce bees, and lives mostly on cream and honey.”

      There you go: awesome skin-changing vegetarian exemplar to off-set Cain 🙂

  34. Chris says:

    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.

    Thoughts on fish, I’ve got some!

    1. Peter Singer argues that eating fish is particularly harmful because there’s no humane killing of fish. If they’re commercially caught in nets, they’re either dying via suffocation on a boat, or something like organs exploding due to nitrogen decompression. Suffocation’s pretty terrible.

    2. Tyler Cowan counters that Peter Singer’s acting like some kind of deontological religious moralizer instead of a consequentialist, and should be looking at the *marginal* increase in a fish’s suffering from being caught in a net. Dying from hunger isn’t necessarily better than dying from suffocation, nor is dying from disease, and those are likely deaths for a wild fish (along with being eaten by other fish, which is sounding like a blessing).

    • John Schilling says:

      Suffocation’s pretty terrible.

      Is it? For a fish?

      Some forms of suffocation are terrible for humans, because they result in carbon dioxide accumulating in the lungs until a CO2-sensitive neurosensor triggers an increasingly urgent “You need to cycle the lungs again!” interrupt. Fish don’t have lungs, so they don’t have this mechanism.

      We know from experience that the other aspects of suffocation, like the lack of oxygen, are not actually terrible and can even be pleasant. It’s just the CO2 part that has the “terrible, terrible suffocation!” aspect. Oh, and for completeness, there’s a terror reflex about getting your lungs full of water, for obvious reasons. But the closest human analogs to the fish-out-of-water case, inert-gas asphyxiation and vacuum asphyxiation, are sufficiently un-terrible that victims generally don’t even notice that there is anything wrong until they (hopefully) wake up afterwards and wonder what all the paramedics are doing.

      Maybe fish have some completely different mechanism that makes “air asphyxiation” as terrible for them as vacuum asphyxiation isn’t terrible for us. I don’t know. Most of what I can find with a quick google glosses briefly over how normal fish go about respirating and then gushes forth information on lungfish and mudskippers and other air-breathing fish.

  35. Foo Quuxman says:


    Linking this because ESR hasn’t been here recently:

    “A bloodmouth carnist theory of animal rights”

  36. David Krueger says:

    It’s funny to see how frequently and rapidly people retreat into moral relativism and nihilism when confronted with this issue.

    • Zebram says:

      Well, I’m a moral nihilist even before this issue. But I think it makes sense to me how people retreat to nihilism when encountering this issue, among others. Most of nature does not follow or care about vegetarianism or any such thing. It makes you question whether morality is actually an aspect of the universe or if we are confusing amoral feelings with moral intuitions. It would be strange if we suddenly have moral feelings regarding this issue and other species (an arbitrary distinction) do not. This issue might be better explained with evolution and natural selection instead.

  37. David Krueger says:

    So, wrt footnote 5, I believe that is a quirk of US laws and a result of the influence of big agriculture…

    There are independent labels, that, to the best of my knowledge, DO do a good job, e.g.

    Also, up here in Canada, it sounds like the Organic eggs come with reasonable standards (as well as the free-range ones, although I think those are maybe do not involve rigorous supervision to ensure standards are met).

    Also, you can sometimes get eggs or other products from trusted or known sources (try your local coop or hippie-ish food store).

  38. Leo says:

    I’ve got to disagree with your ‘give up chicken and eat more beef’ solution. If, provided we’re not willing to give up meat entirely, we want to make a positive altruistic change to our eating habits, then we should be eating more small animals, and less big ones. Beef farming contributes to greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts in a huge way. There is an ad campaign running in China at the moment for Irish beef and dairy. They focus on the fact that an area the size of a soccer pitch is required to graze 2 cows. That’s being presented as a good thing, but I was horrified. Consider the scale of deforestation. Also, calories are the wrong metric to use here. You can get calories from anything. The meat question hinges on protein. Cows require a lot of feed per kg of beef protein they yield. With chickens the yield is 5 times better.

    Cards on the table, I’m not particularly concerned about chicken welfare, but I am concerned about human beings, and the effects that global warming and other kinds of environmental devastation could have on us. Eating more beef is not even close to being a solution to anyone’s problems. This is one of the most wrongheaded things I’ve ever read on this blog.

    Edit for figures: Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1.

    • Deiseach says:

      an area the size of a soccer pitch is required to graze 2 cows

      Okay, looked this up because I never heard it before and to quote a Teagasc article from 2014 about the end of spring calving, there’s an average stocking rate of 1 x 700 kg cow and 1 x 100 kg calf per acre.

      How many acres in a soccer pitch? Depends on size: smallest regulation size is 1.03 acres, larger is 2.69 acres.

      So a minimum sized soccer field would graze two cows, right enough. Before you are all appalled by this wastage of land, I’d like to point out that in Ireland, a traditional insult/dismissal of someone with pretensions to being a landowner/wealthy farmer was “That fella doesn’t even have the grass of two cows!”

      Also, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more than two cows being grazed on an acre at once. Farmers tend to turn a herd into a field, let them graze that bare, and then turn them out into the next field while the grass re-grows in the first.

      Looking at crop yields, the best recent yield for winter wheat in Ireland was in 2011, 10.2 tonnes per hectare which is about 4 tonnes per acre. So we could grow (theoretically, because good tillage and good pasture land are not one and the same) around 4 tonnes per acre replacing 2 cows per acre.

      I can’t be bothered right now to compare wheat consumption in tonnes 🙂

      Would vegetarians/vegans be happier with the “three acres and a cow, but minus the cow”, for everyone? 🙂

      • Leo says:

        Thanks for the details. As for the question of what kind of soccer pitch, I’m sure they went for the small one. It’s advertising, and your Chinese consumers aren’t going to be checking facts.
        The fact that good pasture land and good tillage land are not the same thing was a worthwhile reminder of how massively complicated all this is.
        One simple first step, though: can we please stop subsidizing European beef farmers. The practice seems utterly indefensible.

    • DensityDuck says:

      “I’ve got to disagree with your ‘give up chicken and eat more beef’ solution. ”

      Well, his solution is based on the reasoning of “killing animals is bad, therefore killing more animals is more bad and killing the fewest animals is preferable”.

      although we’re left wondering why he doesn’t advocate a return to whaling, since a whale is like 300 cow-equivalents…

  39. Xerxes says:

    It’s far simpler to just not be a paper-clip-maximizer and assign zero-value to the internal workings of farm animal minds.

  40. Jim B says:

    this week’s intersection of posts on effective altruism and food policy give me an opportunity to hop on my favorite hobby horse: why aren’t the basics of cooking and nutrition a required part of the US educational curriculum on par with math and science?

    I was extremely fortunate growing up to have parents with a strong interest in cooking various national cuisines, and in teaching me the basics of the same. I am absolutely not a vegetarian or in any way inclined to be so on moral or other grounds, and yet I probably eat more vegetarian meals during the course of the week than not simply because there are so many quick, easy, and (above all) delicious preparations of the staple diet of most of the world: rice plus pulses.

    I really think that there are a tremendous set of welfare gains available across a variety of metrics that would come from simply educating children from ages 12-18 on how to prepare a few basic iterations of rice and beans/lentils/etc, as part of a general education on preparing food at home. I see this as at least as important as some of the mathematics beyond algebra, world history, etc that form the core curriculum of post-elementary education. Moreover, if there were a way to tie the donations of the type Scott discusses to providing such education, I see all the more possibility for ethical meat eating being offset.

    • Nornagest says:

      Cooking and nutrition used to be taught, usually to girls, as a component of home economics. (The equivalent for boys was usually shop class.) I don’t know how common it is these days; my middle school didn’t offer it, and my high school offered it as an elective but it wasn’t a popular one.

      • Zebram says:

        I think now everyone takes the same classes. I was taught home economics, and everyone took it. There was no separation of boys and girls.

        • Amanda says:

          At my school there were no home economics classes for either gender. I went to a large public high school in a pretty big city, too, so I imagine this is probably common if all the other high schools in the city were also like that (which I don’t know for sure if they were but I’d guess so).

          Shop class still existed, though. Mostly boys took it, but girls could if they wanted to. It was an elective.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            I don’t remember if there was a shop class at my high school or not, but there was definitely a cooking and sewing elective class. It was theoretically open to both genders, but in practice mostly girls took it.

      • Peter says:

        My school (in the UK) had everyone doing Home Economics in Years 7, 8 and 9 – i.e. from the ages of 11 to 14. That must have been in the early 90’s. In theory it would have been a good thing. In practise, they seem to have had the strange knack of making useful things useless, for example by insisting on a broken and excessively heavyweight “design process”. I’m struggling to remember anything I learned.

        Actually learning to cook came later, in my student days (and even then only when I was 21 or so). I took to it like a duck to water. What they don’t teach in school is how to get some jars of herbs, give each of them a sniff, and decide which will go well in the pasta sauce you’re halfway through cooking.

    • onyomi says:

      Why is hardly anything useful taught in school?

      • Wrong Species says:

        Because people go out in the real world and learn useful things. If you don’t teach the useless things in school, then students will never learn it. And of course, we have to teach kids useless things because it’s the only way we can teach them how to think for reasons.

      • Zebram says:

        It depends on what you call useful. And much of the curriculum emphasizes one thing over another. For example, in govt class, even despite claims of objectivity, clearly certain narratives are favored over others, whether explicitly so or through exclusion.

      • blacktrance says:

        Because it’s more high-status to care about mathematics, foreign languages, and the arts than about more everyday concerns. Scott’s written a post about how the same dynamic applies to dystopian novels.

        • onyomi says:

          I think this is broadly, and unfortunately correct, and reflects a pattern commonly seen throughout history: as soon as they have the means to do so, the lower socio-economic classes will start to imitate the habits of the upper classes (who then figure out something new to do), even though, in many cases, those habits were intentionally ostentatiously useless. Take Chinese footbinding, for example: it began among royalty and urban elite, but was last to die out among rural peasants.

          At least those footbinding peasants probably didn’t confuse cause and effect as our public discourse on education does. Everyone thinks it’s having 16-24 years of education that makes you rich, when, in fact, it’s being rich that makes you able to pay for your children to get educated for 16-24 years.

          If I could get us to add just one useful thing to primary and secondary school education it would be economics: no, I’m not trying to smuggle in my preferred Hayekian vision of things: just the most basic economics almost anyone would agree on: begin with how to write a check, how to read a balance sheet, etc. and continue to supply and demand, etc. So much of the public discourse even among intelligent, well-educated people reflects a total ignorance of economics that it’s very frustrating even to me, and I don’t even know that much about economics.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            If I could get us to add just one useful thing to primary and secondary school education it would be economics: no, I’m not trying to smuggle in my preferred Hayekian vision of things: just the most basic economics almost anyone would agree on: begin with how to write a check, how to read a balance sheet, etc. and continue to supply and demand, etc. So much of the public discourse even among intelligent, well-educated people reflects a total ignorance of economics that it’s very frustrating even to me, and I don’t even know that much about economics.

            My high school had a required “economics” class (more like a personal finance class) which focused on things like writing checks, making budgets, and so on. The smartest kids would take AP Macroeconomics instead, though, which focused on concepts like supply and demand curves, comparative advantage, and the production possibilities frontier. I thought this was one of the sanest things my school did; there is no way you can make a kid with 85 IQ points understand highly abstract ideas like supply and demand curves, but you can plausibly teach him simple, practical, everyday life skills like writing a check.

          • “The smartest kids would take AP Macroeconomics instead, though, which focused on concepts like supply and demand curves, comparative advantage, and the production possibilities frontier.”

            All of which I would classify as Microeconomics aka price theory.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            All of which I would classify as Microeconomics aka price theory.

            The AP Macroeconomics and the AP Microeconomics curricula have a fair bit of overlap. In fact, at my school AP Macro students were allowed to take the AP Micro exam at the school’s expense, on the theory that they could self-study the extra material (I did, and I managed to pass).

  41. alaska3636 says:

    I’m also not sure that I understand the moral argument against eating animals. In nature, more complex organisms gain sustenance from less complex organisms. I also don’t think there exists any more evidence for consciousness in lower mammals than in plants if that is the moral dividing line. It seems like the main argument is a variation on the hypothetical situation of an advanced alien race farming humans for food and “how would you like that?” But there are reminders on Earth that humans can still be considered food: bears, big cats, sharks all have eaten humans. Humans also do not typically negotiate with these animals. They kill them. I imagine if aliens wanted to farm humans for food that we would kill before being killed, pacifism be to heck. Which makes me wonder whether all things are simply cost/benefit economic relationships.

    • onyomi says:

      I do think animal suffering has some negative moral value and more so the further you move up the scale of intelligence. What’s possibly ironic, however, is that probably the people who care more about animal suffering are more likely to be pro-choice…

    • Zebram says:

      I’d agree with this. Morality is probably not a part of the universe we live in. It is only a misinterpretation of amoral feelings and ‘intuitions’ for moral ones through decades of conditioning since before you could remember.

      • Wrong Species says:

        I still cannot understand how anyone takes moral realism seriously. The arguments seem to come down “Well, my intuition says morality is real. The burden of proof is on you to prove me wrong.” I honestly don’t understand how atheists who would clearly reject that argument in favor of god as being trivially wrong seem to think this is an important rigorous argument that proves the existence of objective morality.(I’m exaggerating but only slightly)

        • Zebram says:

          I don’t believe atheists are atheists out of some sincere search for the truth to a larger degree than religious people are religious for that reason (I’m not saying they are all insincere, I’m saying I don’t think the conversion happens due to sincerity to a larger degree than among religious people). When I talk to people about moral nihilism, I generally do not get responses back that attempt to prove that morality exists. I usually get back responses to the effect that moral nihilism doesn’t offer humanity something ‘positive’, or that society wouldn’t ‘work’ without morality, or whatever. People generally become atheist and secular humanists for multiple reasons, but a major component of that is because it offers them something, whether it is escape from strict moral codes of religion, like ‘don’t watch pornography and fornicate whenever you feel like it’ or ‘you must attend church for 3 hours every week’ etc, and it gives people a sense of importance rather than subservience to ‘God’. To me this is evident in the increasing narcissism of society, where it seems every ridiculous human desire must be cheered and given value. In other words, I think your notion that atheists and self labeled ‘rationalists’ should be accepting moral nihilism at larger rates than theists is incorrect, they are no less self-serving or on a search for the truth than theists are.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I see what you’re saying but there are plenty of atheists(most I would guess) who didn’t just start being an atheist one day because they wanted to. Many of them were sincere christians who kept looking for evidence of god and couldn’t find it. And gradually, they begrudgingly admitted to themselves that there might not be a god. If that’s not a sincere search for the truth, then I don’t know what is.

        • moridinamael says:

          I’m confused. You don’t have to be a moral realist to think your behavior should be guided by morality.

          I try to avoid eating animals as much as possible because I don’t want to contribute to suffering. It’s super-duper simple. There’s no need to retreat into labyrinths of arcane ethical reasoning. Such labyrinths are, in fact, more likely to just confuse you.

          Your intuitions ground your morality, and ultimately your intuitions are *enough*. If you would balk if asked to shoot a cow in the brain with a bolt gun, then your intuitions are telling you something.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I’m confused by your confusion. I don’t reject moral intuitions, never said I did. I was just saying that to believe my moral intuitions are objective facts of the universe is ridiculous.

          • moridinamael says:

            I think I misunderstood your post, sorry.

          • Zebram says:

            That is not necessarily a ‘moral intuition.’ Balking at doing something does not mean therefore there is some moral component to that feeling. My view is that the ‘balking’ and similar feelings are just amoral feelings that are mislabeled with moral terminology. When you were 2 or 3 years old, your parents likely started using moral terminology with you, like ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, etc. You learned to associate those words with these amoral feelings, and now we all think that somehow the moral component is actually a part of the emotion when in fact it is an association you have developed between the two through decades of conditioning.

        • onyomi says:

          To be more charitable to the moral realist position:

          When moral realists use the word “intuition,” they are talking about something more than just a vague hunch. Such “intuitions” would include the intuition that I am not a computer simulation or a brain in a jar, but a human organism sitting at a computer. These intuitions could be false, but in the absence of new evidence, I have to assume they are correct.

          Most people have a very strong intuition that some things are definitely wrong or right. There is a lot of grey, but there are also spaces of black and white, where almost everyone agrees. To deny moral realism is to say there is no objective sense in which Clara Barton was a better person than Adolf Hitler, or that feeding the homeless is better than genocide. This intuitively seems to be very incorrect, maybe even as incorrect as me being a brain in a jar.

          Why, then, should we not operate on the assumption that our strong intuitions about basic moral/evaluative facts are as reliable as our intuitions about basic physical facts?

          • Wrong Species says:

            Because if are intuitions about the physical world were wrong, then we would have died. If my eyes tell me that a bear is to me my left when it’s actually to my right, I’m going to lose the evolutionary battle. But if I believe in some morality when none exists, that could be very helpful. It’s the same way that everyone can believe in god without evidence and it doesn’t hinder our existence.

          • Zebram says:

            I reject that completely. People have a sense of discomfort, anger, sadness, etc but no sense of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness.’ And the conditioning of human beings in this regard is so overwhelming that you almost cannot even demonstrate that such intuitions are moral in nature and not just word association games without literally conducting an experiment, which I doubt anyone actually wants to do. The only way to actually experiment is to attempt to look at different cultures, and there are signs that some cultures which have not been influenced by the larger world society do not have any morality. They certainly do have codes of conduct, but that is not the same thing.

          • onyomi says:


            People do have a sense of “right” and “wrong” separable from anger, sadness, etc. Otherwise, how are we able to evaluate the morality of cases which do not affect us emotionally? It makes me more angry that someone stole my credit card info than that Caligula liked to torture people for sport, yet I can confidently state that the latter was a greater moral infraction.

            There are no cultures without a sense of “ought” in addition to a sense of “is.” And if you think a code of conduct which tells you you “ought” to do x, y, or z is different from morality, then…how?

          • onyomi says:


            It would not hinder our existence to see stars where none exist, yet we trusted our intuition that they did exist until they could be independently verified.

          • Wrong Species says:


            If you can find a way to independently verify morality, I would love to hear it. In the mean time, I’m going to go with my intuition, which is telling me that it’s a terrible argument. I’m not going to accept the idea that the burden of proof is on me to prove morality wrong, because that’s just like saying the burden of proof is on atheists to prove God isn’t real.

          • onyomi says:

            So your intuition is that there is no real sense in which it is “better” to feed the homeless than to commit genocide?

          • Zebram says:


            We evaluate the ‘morality’ of cases that do not affect us because we have empathy, that is, understanding how it would feel if it happened to us.

            We are conditioned since we were 2 or 3 years old, so I don’t agree with your evaluation of your emotions. We have all kinds of emotions that have helped us survive, that is all. No moral component to them.

            And yes, there are cultures without a sense of ‘ought.’ some of the polynesian culture had a concept they called ‘tapu,’ which is a code that helped the group to survive, but doesn’t meet the definition of morality. Just because there is a code telling you to do x, y, and z doesnt make it a moral code.

          • onyomi says:


            What is your definition of morality?

            If you have a code which tells you what you “ought” to do, then that sounds a lot like morality to me. A world without morality is a world of only “is,” no “ought.”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Then you just get into “what is morality” arguments.

            It’s perfectly acceptable to argue that the code the mafia follows is not moral. An acceptable counter-argument is that “they have their own morality” but it isn’t that of the rest of society.

            I don’t want to get into a “well how do we define morality, then” argument (I still stick in my standard “rights are in tension” clause). But I don’t think that you can blanket assert that every code that has that gives “ought” is a code that is moral.

          • onyomi says:


            No, not every moral code is moral. Because I am a moral realist and I think that normative/evaluative codes may be right or wrong. Glad to hear you’re a moral realist too!

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yes, I believe there is objective morality.

            I also think that morality is context sensitive. If I close one eye, and cock my head, I might say that morality might be a little like relativity. It’s far easier to understand morality as it relates to the local system, trying to generalize and move from system to system gets very, very complex.

          • onyomi says:

            I think right and wrong are a lot like good and bad art. There is a rather big grey area, but there are also right answers to some questions. Is Macbeth better writing than Twilight? I think the answer, objectively, is yes.

            Scott has a good post on this somewhere, but I can’t recall now: I think his basic argument is that bigger aesthetic (and, I am claiming, maybe moral) judgments may boil down to lots of smaller object level questions.

            So, sure, there is a lot of room for personal preference, but if, on every objective measure of what good art (or action) has in common, x succeeds and y fails, then we can pretty safely say that x IS better art (or behavior) than y in more than just a purely subjective sense.

            So, between cultures, there is probably a lot of permissible “gray area,” as there is permissible “gray area” to prefer, say CS Lewis to JRR Tolkien, yet I also think it is possible to make ethical judgments about cultures other than one’s own. We don’t have to say, “oh well, it’s their culture to burn women when their husbands die; who am I to judge?” We can say “that may be your culture and tradition, and may make a certain amount of sense within the context of your other values, but it’s still wrong.”

          • Zebram says:


            The code of the polynesian peoples was called ‘tapu.’ It has nothing to do with ‘oughts.’ Therefore it is not a moral code. It is a code that says that if you don’t follow it, a sort of ‘darkness’ will cover the person who commits it which must be removed through rituals.

          • onyomi says:


            So what is your definition of a moral code?

          • onyomi says:

            The Wikipedia on “tapu” summarizes:

            “…tapu is considered inviolable or sacrosanct. Things or places which are tapu must be left alone, and may not be approached or interfered with. In some cases, they should not even be spoken of… ‘Noa’, on the other hand, lifts the “tapu” from the person or the object. ‘Noa’ is similar to a blessing.” …that sounds like a lot of “shoulds” to me…


            In Christianity, certain things, such as a person’s life, home, spouse, parents, possessions, and the lord’s name are viewed as sacred. To do something which violates them, like murder, stealing, coveting, taking the lord’s name in vain, etc. is a “sin.” A very bad sinner may be subject to excommunication. A sinner may be relieved of the sin through confession and penance.

            Or, in more secular terms:

            There are certain behaviors which our society takes to be normative; violating norms of behavior regarding bodily integrity, property, loyalty, and honesty is called “wrong,” and people who do this should feel “guilt,” and may be subject to ostracism. One may be relieved of “guilt” by showing genuine contrition and making amends to the victim and/or the society at large.

            Sure, the things the Maori view as sacrosanct may be a little different, but these three normative/prescriptive/ethical codes of behavior don’t strike me as fundamentally different.

          • Zebram says:


            The term ‘immoral’ describes an action, and means it is something that ‘ought not’ to be done.

            That definition of tapu does not seem convincingly like ‘ought’ at all. Words like ‘sacred’ or ‘blessing’ do not mean anything like ‘ought.’ Virtually none of the terms you used to describe either Christian or even the secular terms you cited seem like ‘ought.’ I think you are reading into the definition what you want because most humans have the same general predisposition towards behavior that is labeled as ‘moral’ in this society, because species which perform such actions tend to survive, and so we have strong urges to perform those actions and strong urges not to perform others.

            Related to that, it seems to me that people who have OCD feel compelled to do all sorts of things that we could very plausibly use many of the terms you used to describe.

    • Deiseach says:

      The most virtuous possible meat eating? Toto Coelo’s I Eat Cannibals 🙂

  42. yuvi says:

    There’s one thing you forgot to mention – you’re calculating calories here. When I cook I don’t count calories, I count kilograms.

    Let’s say I’m cooking noodles, with 300 grams of meat. If this is chicken meat that will result in 165*3=495~500. If it’s beef, that’s 250*3=750.

    So calorie consumption is actually 1.5 times larger, which, when applied to your calculation results in around 1.1 cows a year, which is almost twice than your stated 0.6 (this doesn’t debunk your argument in the slightest, but I would think it wise to add a footnote pointing out that the switch to beef has to include a decrease in the amount of meat consumed to reflect the differences in calories between the animals)

  43. alaska3636 says:

    I consider vegetarianism/veganism a hobby whereby wealthy(ish) people, unencumbered by more meaningful pastimes to occupy their time, preen on a secular moral high ground in between yoga classes. While there is no question in my mind about the moral bankruptcy of factory farming, the whole vegetarian-thing strikes me as a wealthy Northerner foregoing Southern cotton (for imported silk) because it is a product of slavery: nevermind that an American slave might just be better off than an African commoner, or that a beakless chicken is still a live animal. Meanwhile, poorer people go cold and hungry.

    Vegetarianism is both time-consuming and expensive and meat is delicious and easy. While I am as delighted by the movement towards conscientious food as I am towards the movement towards hoppy beers, the main issue does not seem to me the utility of animals as food so much as the influence of a small group of people over the choices of the larger group and as peaceable individuals in general. *Edit* I feel it might be necessary to add that factory farming, like many large corporations and the concomitant attempt to regulate them, has the effect of crowding out more local, traditional and humane (and, yes, probably riskier) operations. The effect of pushing the margin down on food makes it so only really wealthy people can afford to eat well, be they vegetarian or otherwise. The secondary effect is that people who don’t take the time or have the interest in finding out all about food are complicit in the Nazi-like destruction of sentient creatures; whereas those of us who know better are still complicit because you have to eat something and the vegetables these days don’t seem to be all that healthy either.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      “I consider vegetarianism/veganism a hobby whereby wealthy(ish) people, unencumbered by more meaningful pastimes to occupy their time, preen on a secular moral high ground in between yoga classes. ”

      The fact that wealthyish secular white people have chosen vegetarianism and yoga classes as symbols of virtue is VERY WEIRD. This is the sort of mystery the field of anthropology was invented to solve.

    • Jim B says:

      I disagree with your contention that vegetarianism is expensive. The vast majority of the world lives on some variation of rice and beans or other pulses. If you examine the bulk goods aisle of your local grocery store , the per-calorie cost of this approach is shockingly low.

      • alaska3636 says:

        What about the per/nutrient cost?

        • onyomi says:

          Still better. You can literally get almost everything you need from rice and beans. Add in a few extra fruits and vegetables plus occasional bit of seafood and you have a much healthier diet than most people in the US eat now.

    • onyomi says:

      Some people are also vegans for health reasons. I personally think the healthiest diet is probably vegan-ish with some seafood thrown in for omega 3s and some cheese thrown in because, well, cheese… Personally, I probably eat vegan 3-5 days a week, mostly for health purposes, though I do try to buy the supposedly humane meat when it’s available.

      Also, it’s deeply ironic that veganism is now considered the preserve of the wealthy with too much time on their hands. Throughout almost all of history and in much of the world today it’s only the wealthy who can afford to eat meat regularly. Rice and beans are cheap.

      • alaska3636 says:

        I imagine that the evolution of flavor has reversed the trend of poor vegan to wealthy one. Poor people knew probably knew how to cook rice and beans right up to the point of McDonald’s then said, “Screw it.” Wealthy people can now pay for the forgotten poor methods of preparing vegan food in ways diverse enough to satisfy a modern palette.

      • Zebram says:

        Interesting to note that I’ve been hearing that omega-3’s benefit is way overblown. I don’t remember where I found it, but that’s what some of the latest research seems to be saying.

        • onyomi says:

          There’s also B12, which we supposedly used to get from bacteria in unchlorinated water, as well as the larger quantities of dirt we probably unintentionally consumed in the past. Shellfish seem an especially good way of meeting this need. I also find the aquatic ape hypothesis pretty plausible, so I tend to think our most natural and ideal diet is probably vegan-ish, but not totally vegan.

    • moridinamael says:

      Being vegetarian is way, way, way easy. Eating out? Order the dishes that don’t have meat – almost all restaurants have them – or ask that meat be withheld from a dish you want.

      Cooking vegetarian meals at home is just as easy. In fact, I wager you can do it with this One Weird Trick: When you go to the market, DON’T BUY ANY MEAT. You will be amazed to find that there is no meat in your house, and the dishes you will cook will not contain meat. Somehow, you will not die or even suffer malnutrition.

    • Iajawl says:

      Poor person here. One of the main advantages of being a vegetarian is how cheap it is. If you go to a little country called India you will see that being a poor vegetarian is most certainly not the passtime of rich white people. Your sweeping statements in this area beggar belief. Vegetables are a much more efficient use of land and water too.

      Just where do you get your information from.

  44. Randy M says:

    Already too many comments for this not to have been said, but contributing to charities that exist to convince others not to eat meat does not scale well. If everyone follows your advice, there will be lots of smug beef-tarians watching propaganda intended for others, some well to do advertisers, and no change in animal welfare.

    Also, who do you think needs the nutrition from animal products more, you or school children? Have you seen school lunches lately?

    • Matt says:

      The scaling isn’t fixed. As more people become vegetarians, the cost of a meat offset increases. In this system, the cow-utilon is a hard currency, backed by a cow (but probably not redeemable). Or, more clearly, 1 cow-utilon has a fixed value with a market based price. I can easily imagine spending cow-utilon equivalent dollars efficiently at nearly any exchange rate. We start with advocacy and advertising life style changes, move to flat out paying people not to eat meat, and then later subsidize cruelty free meat.

  45. Quinn says:

    Note that the switching-to-beef plan is tightly coupled to the reducing-meat plan! There’s not enough grazing land or feed to support everyone switching their annual meat consumption from fowl to beef, pound-for-pound (not to mention the extra greenhouse emissions).

    • Randy M says:

      I’ve noticed that sometimes Scott utilitarian trade-off recommendations sort of assumes that few people will implement them. I suppose this is a reasonable assumption and makes the math easier, but it seems odd as a moral recommendation.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        It is a weird feature of consequentialism that its recommendations sometimes fail to universalize. It is true of each individual person on earth that they ought to do x, but it is not true that we all ought to do x.

  46. David Byron says:

    This argument (as note 4 partially concedes) assumes that a chicken and a cow are identical as moral patients. I don’t think that’s very likely. First of all I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t think either animal is conscious (ie there is no such thing as “how it is to be a chicken”). Either way it seems like you’d have to say that consciousness evolved at some point and for some reason, and that whether you agree with me that it evolved basically only for humans, or disagree, you’d surely agree that it’s more likely that a cow is conscious than it is that a chicken is conscious, and in particular it might well be that a cow is conscious and a chicken is not, but the reverse is very unlikely.

    Beyond that as footnote 4 concedes it may be that a cow has a more sensitive conscious experience than a chicken does. After all if consciousness has an evolutionary advantage then presumably it acts like some sort of input/sense and so it makes sense that an animal would have more sensitivity the more it was usefully able to do different things within it’s environment.

    eta: If the chickens get killed after only about 7 weeks, as someone else claimed, then they are essentially just infants. Certainly it is far more moral to execute or cause suffering to an infant than to an adult. In many respects an infant simply wouldn’t be developed enough mentally to even experience much suffering from eg overcrowding. Think of how a hospital will happily put two dozen babies in one room but adults prefer some privacy for example.

  47. 27chaos says:

    My own empathy cuts off at some point. I don’t know where exactly that point is or what it entails, but I feel that 99% of insects and the vast majority of fish fall below it. Chicken are smart enough that I’m persuaded by this post to try to eat them less often, but they’re still close enough to meat-robots that I am not overwhelmed by the thought of their holocaust.

    Are pigs significant?

    • moridinamael says:

      Pigs are probably the most intelligent livestock animals, unfortunately. I don’t actually feel bad if I accidentally order a dish with some chicken or beef, but I definitely feel bad if I accidentally order a dish with pork.

      Pigs are socially intelligent, which makes them not just generally intelligent but intelligent in a human-like way.

      It’s impossible to deny that cows are pretty intelligent if you ever spend a while watching a herd of them in a wild environment. They have very intricate behaviors and communicate complex information through vocalizations.

  48. Max says:

    I’ve seen this mentioned twice before but I’ll echo the sentiment. How does climate change factor into this? If raising cows is worse for the environment, either through greenhouse gasses or through land use, then we no longer limit our discussion to the suffering of cows and chickens.

  49. Mike Wong says:

    Beef has a higher meat/mind ratio, but chicken produces less greenhouse gas per kg of meat ( Chicken is also generally healthier for your heart ( The utilitarian calculus gets rather complicated!

  50. Richard says:

    I have stated my view on this topic elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t reiterate in detail here. Summary:

    If animals have moral value, one would want to increase the number of happy animals
    The best way to do this is to increase demand for quality meats and decrease demand for factory farmed meat so that farmers have an economic incentive to treat their animals well.

    Now, if you want to know how, you can go do this experiment:

    1: Go to your local cheapskate supermarket and get a packet of the cheapest bacon you can find.
    2: Go buy some genuine Spanish Serrano ham

    compare a slice of each.

    The cheap bacon will have very pale flesh with big stripes of fat interspacing the meat. This is a sign of an obese, stationary, possibly diabetic pig.
    The Serrano ham will be darker in colour, have only a slight marbling from fat and a single stripe of fat on one edge. This stripe should be 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide. This is the sign of a contented pig.

    It is very nearly impossible to produce lean and healthy meat without giving the animals access to exercise. A well exercised animal is a happy animal. Or at least there is no economically feasible way to get around it, treadmills are expensive. Serrano ham is produced from pigs who spend their days messing about in Spanish hillsides, foraging for acorns and chestnuts and is a rather distinct example of the quality meat you get from happy animals.

    This goes for all mammals and terrestrial birds that are farmed for meat, though of course the actual colour and fat deposits varies by species, so comparing bacon and beef is not a productive approach.

    The exception is waterfowl like geese and ducks. Happy geese will form a thick layer of fat for insulation that mistreated geese will not. The problem with this is that a mistreated goose which is also force fed will get the same fat deposit so you can’t tell unless you have other knowledge about the treatment.

  51. Sammy says:

    I figure $15 dollars offsets it and then some. I’m going to have a lion burger lol.

    • Nornagest says:

      I wouldn’t, if I were you. Mammalian carnivores tend to taste nasty.

      Alligator’s pretty good, though.

      • Matt says:

        Do you know why that is?

        • Nornagest says:

          Not for sure, but the flavor of an animal’s flesh is influenced by what it’s been eating. It’s plausible to me that eating other mammals would concentrate the compounds responsible for gamy flavors beyond most people’s tastes.

          That’s pretty speculative, though.

          • onyomi says:

            I think you’re probably right. Going further up the food chain can be bad for both flavor and health, because it concentrates things. Of course, this also means that animal fat is the most concentrated naturally available form of fuel, but it also stores and concentrates any mercury, etc. which might have existed in only small quantities in the plants or animals the animal higher on the food chain ate. And most of us in the developed world are not really in need of denser sources of calories…

            And of course, it’s more economically efficient to eat corn than to grow corn to feed cows to eat cows. It would be even worse, of course, to grow corn to feed cows to feed lions to feed us.

        • moridinamael says:

          Alligator is not a mammal and should be expected to taste different.

          The taste of meat has a lot to do with, for lack of a better word, how the meat works out while it’s alive. Carnivores tend toward the type of sprint-and-rest movement cycle that leads to gamey meat.

          • onyomi says:

            Alligators and other reptiles taste like chicken. Of course, birds are just little, feathery dinosaurs, so makes sense.

          • Nornagest says:

            Flakier and more tender than chicken, I think, although the taste is similar in some ways. I think of it as somewhere between chicken and firm white fish, which makes sense given its evolutionary history.

  52. Gement says:

    Factoring in ecological impact is a key factor as well. It relates, as other commenters have pointed out, to how long an animal is alive (generally in horrible conditions).

    There are religious sects that count meat eating ethics by number of organisms killed, and try to avoid yogurt because it contains multitudes. Without getting too far into the details of that, when I tried to articulate my disagreement, I discovered I was talking in terms of animal’s ethical weight A =(neurons x time) / calories.

    One complex thinking organism raised to adulthood has to provide a lot of calories to beat 500 mussels or a good-sized fish.

    There are limits, obviously, such as whales, but I also have a hard bright line on “no tool users, nothing endangered” to remove arguments by absurdity.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Why do you consider Animal Lives to be the measure by which to judge moral footprint? Admittedly this can be a difficult subject, but I would kill many chickens to save an elephant from suffering, not to say a whale. Maybe I’m in the wrong, sacrificing many lives just for the one, out of some anthropomorphizing or whatever, but maybe I’m right and the value of an entity’s life can be quantified… Almost nobody gives a shit about insects anyway.

    On the other hand, how many intellectually disabled and emotionally blunt orphans would be ethical to sacrifice in order to save one joyous, vast consciousness? I honestly don’t know, but I feel like we are allowed to be whimsical and specist to a point.

    EDIT: I see you addressed this on the footnotes, sorry, didn’t see it at first for some reason.

  54. Zhe Lu says:

    Two thoughts:

    Cows are much less environmental than chickens in the sense that cows are a large source of methane (the largest in western Pennsylvania, for example).

    You can argue that plants also have moral value. They can’t necessarily feel pain via a central nervous system, but they have stress hormones and respond chemically to injury. You might consider that response to be “pain.”

  55. Carl Shulman says:

    “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”

    Then you need to take into account that farmed cows live a few years, while chickens farmed for meat live several weeks.

  56. Michael says:

    I’d appreciate it if you didn’t semi-endorse the Katja Grace article as you have on here and tumblr.

    While you present a much better reasoned version of the argument here, her article is complete garbage. It’s shameful to see a smart person present a new version of the bias-supercharged arguments vegetarians hear constantly, that all amount to “whatever I need to tell myself so that I don’t have to eat a single veggieburger.”

    Her conclusion ends up as something to the effect of: “weirdly enough, you can offset unchanged meat consumption by donating three cents a year to deworming.”

    How unsurprising that her argument ends up telling her to go do exactly what she was doing already. (minus three cents)

    By contrast, I appreciate your own stance. The world needs more people who can accept that they’re doing something wrong but don’t have the strength to change. I still eat fish, but know I shouldn’t. If everyone did that, we could work together to find ways to make vegetarianism practical. Instead the average meat-eater just cognitive dissonances up a way to find that vegetarians are the real bad guys. (PETA’s evil, at least I don’t shove my views down others’ throats, grain farming kills more animals than meat farms, etc.)

    On a minor note, It sounds like you were going about your vegetarianism attempt totally wrong. Vegetarians don’t eat double the vegetables, they find ways to replace the meat portion of their meals. You aren’t replacing a burger with a second helping of carrots, you’re replacing it with a veggieburger made from lentils or chickpeas or black beans or beets or mushrooms.

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      You know what? You can take your veggie burger and STUFF IT with lettuce because you can’t have a real burger without lettuce.

    • Tibor says:

      I have some sympathies for vegetarians (although I do not really have a problem with the killing of animals itself, despite the fact that I find it commendable to try to improve their life quality) but perhaps you should try to be a bit open minded yourself.

      There are people who simply do not consider animal suffering to be a problem at all: “Farm animals are just products made for us humans, their suffering is entirely irrelevant.” While you may disagree with that (I do too, although not as much as you do), it is too hasty to jump into conclusions like you do: “Obviously, everyone considers animal suffering (or even simply killing animals for food) as a bad thing, so whoever is not a vegetarian is a hypocrite and needs to make up excuses to justify his obviously wrong conduct.” They may be bad people from your perspective, but they are not necessarily hypocrites.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        I think the issue here is with people that buy into vegetarian premises and then “chicken out” of actually going vegetarian.

        • James says:

          Yeah, they could at least beef out. That would only have 1/40th the negative effects of chickening out.

        • Tibor says:

          Well, it depends on how much you buy into it. Supporting vegetarian ideas for ethical reasons is not necessarily a discrete trait where you either do so or don’t. Suppose that being a vegetarian suddenly becomes very costly for some reason. I would expect many vegetarians to drop out from vegetarianism. That means they value strict vegetarianism less than the now increased costs of being one. But I can value the elimination of animal suffering to a point where I am willing to give up a few dollars a month to reduce it, not enough to stop enjoying the benefits of meat eating. If I acknowledge that fact, I am not a hypocrite either. Scott seems to be that kind of a person.

      • DensityDuck says:

        It’s also pretty limited to say “the only way to minimize the suffering of animals is to NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES MAKE THEM DIE”.

      • Michael says:

        I think you may have misunderstood my argument a bit. I agree that a huge number of people think it’s totally acceptable to harm food animals, my argument is that I suspect probably about 80% only believe that because that’s what it takes to justify their eating habits.

        I’m saying that I wish there were MORE hypocrites. I wish people, instead letting cognitive dissonance persuade them eating meat is fine, acknowledged it was wrong but did it anyway. That way instead of vegetarians facing a hostile world, they’d face a sympathetic world that’s just waiting for cheaper, tastier vegetarian food.

        The issue is that most people prefer being wrong-but-consistent to being a hypocrite.

        Another problem I didn’t bring up in my first post was that in this case, the false beliefs that one embraces for that purpose create further issues in their own right. People who, although they wouldn’t go as far as vegetarianism, would otherwise support improving farm conditions or refrain from meat where not too inconvenient, will do neither of those things, since their omnivore-status has pushed them to tell themselves animal lives don’t matter even minimally.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I’ve come to accept that vegetarians are right just from not hearing a single good case against vegetarianism. If there was a good argument against vegetarians, the anti-vegetarians would be using that one argument instead of coming up with a million different arguments, each one more strained than the last. I’m still a hypocrite who regularly eats meat, but I don’t try to come up with some terrible argument just to justify my lifestyle and hopefully I get to the point where I can feel more comfortable adjusting to that lifestyle. I need to find myself a vegetarian cookbook or something.

      • Jiro says:

        Good argument against vegetarians? “Vegetarians” aren’t a unit and believe different things; why should one argument apply to all of the different vegetarians?

      • Steve says:

        I’ve spent way too much of my life thinking about this, and I think the best argument can probably be summed up as “all human activity causes animal suffering > veganism/vegetarianism may reduce animal suffering a lot, but it’s still an arbitrary amount (i.e. you could always reduce it more) > arbitrary things can’t be obligatory > veganism/vegetarianism can’t be obligatory.”

        I think there are definitely some responses to this argument and I flip back and forth on how I feel about it, but it’s definitely better than the many thoughtless/knee jerk arguments you see against being vegan/vegetarian.

        • Michael says:

          Surely that reasoning could apply just as easily to human suffering?

          “I could manumit my slaves, but I could also help my fellow man to an even greater extent, so it therefore isn’t obligatory.”

          Even if we concede the point, lessening harm to animals would still be the right thing to do, just not mandatory. Most people don’t see giving to charity as obligatory, but they will still agree that it’s more moral than not doing so.

          • Jiro says:

            Congratulations. You’ve rediscovered a flaw in utilitarianism.

            If you’re only required to do a certain amount of utility-increasing stuff, then it is indeed okay to buy meat offsets, or murder offsets, or keep slaves and buy enough extra malaria nets that the net effect of the slavery+the extra nets is neutral.

            But the alternative is that you’re required to do as much utility-increasing stuff as you can (except to the extent that you still need to be able to live, keep a job, and stay psychologically healthy).

          • Jeffrey Soreff says:

            re Jiro’s
            “But the alternative is that you’re required to do as much utility-increasing stuff as you can (except to the extent that you still need to be able to live, keep a job, and stay psychologically healthy).

            In which case, the sane thing to do is to take a deep breath,
            take a step back, and try to remember what was the goal for
            which one was interested in morality _for_ in the first place..

            If it threatens to dominate one’s life, that sounds like it is very
            plausible that one has lost track of one’s original goal and
            accidentally let a subgoal replace the original goal.
            E.g. if the original goal was to have a happy life, and a subgoal
            of that was to be respected, and a subgoal of that was to be moral,
            one needs to take care that one’s morally driven actions aren’t
            doing more damage to one’s original goal of a happy life than
            they are worth to that goal.

          • Linch says:

            Ermmm…at the risk of saying the obvious, the original goal is to have happy liveS. My own happiness is a minor component, albeit why I’m emotionally attached to for morally arbitrary reasons.

        • Jeffrey Soreff says:


          >Ermmm…at the risk of saying the obvious, the original goal is to have happy liveS. My own happiness is a minor component, albeit why I’m emotionally attached to for morally arbitrary reasons.

          Happy liveS isn’t anyone’s original goal. No one is born fervently wishing all 7 billion humans (or, given the discussion, humans plus some set of animals) well as their primary goal. My point is that morality is a minor component of everyone’s original goals, and letting it dominate looks like a mistake in reasoning. The term I’ve heard is “subgoal stomp” – losing track of the original motivation for a subgoal. As I said before: What does someone want morality _for_? What goals did someone start with originally – and global optimization of utiles is not a believable answer – and can they actually show that pursuing moral aims is not a mistake?

      • gbdub says:

        Just because you aren’t convinced, doesn’t mean there’s no good case against vegetarianism. Pretty much every ethical case FOR vegetarianism requires that you assign a lot of value to avoiding suffering of animals that humans evolved to consume for sustenance. That is not a question you can just beg away, and I don’t think it has an objective answer.

        Given that, “I don’t think the death/suffering of a cow outweighs my enjoyment of beef” is a perfectly GOOD case, even if you personally reject it.

      • Nornagest says:

        Funny, I feel exactly the same way about the other side.

        There are lots of superficially strong arguments for vegetarianism, but all of them that aren’t just straight-up FUD generally turn out to have some seriously weird consequences (regarding e.g. wild animals) when you delve into them further, or to be based on axioms which have weird consequences (e.g. all the thought experiments surrounding hedonic utilitarianism that I’m not going to bother regurgitating). The vegetarians we get in this community are at least willing to entertain those consequences, which is to their credit, and weird doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, but anything that badly intuitively broken has to climb a tall hill of evidence to get me to take it seriously. That evidence has not been forthcoming.

        (Mixed metaphors!)

        And since Scott requested we not argue about animal suffering in these comments, I’ll stop there.

        • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

          >And since Scott requested we not argue about animal suffering in these comments, I’ll stop there.

          He did? I don’t think anyone else got the memo.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Everyone in this thread is only looking at animal rights from a utilitarian perspective. I’m just using my intuition that says “it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering” and applying it to animals. In that case, it doesn’t imply that I need to reduce the number of carnivores or wirehead animals or whatever.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Yes. There’s a long tradition of “First, do no harm” and (well, update this) “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive, Officiously to keep alive.”

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m just using my intuition that says “it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering” and applying it to animals. In that case, it doesn’t imply that I need to reduce the number of carnivores…

            Universalize it and it does. The traditional response has been to universalize the implied obligation only to humans and not to animals, on some more or less handwavey set of grounds, but there’s an asymmetry there that I find unsatisfying. This doesn’t take utilitarianism or even consequentialism, just deontology consistently applied.

            Western moral philosophy regarding obligations in asymmetric relationships is pretty weak in general, really.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        @ Wrong Species
        I’m still a hypocrite who regularly eats meat, but I don’t try to come up with some terrible argument just to justify my lifestyle and hopefully I get to the point where I can feel more comfortable adjusting to that lifestyle. I need to find myself a vegetarian cookbook or something.

        Isn’t ‘hypocrisy’ a Virtue issue? Or Deontological, or purity, or something like that? (I think we can get free cookbooks from the v*ans, and certainly from the Hare Krishnas. HK food is galactically fantastic. )

        I have always thought that the word ‘hypocrisy’ meant harmful deception — such as being publicly an anti-gay preacher while practicing gay in the closet. But I’m informed that it really means (or meant) only partially living up to your own opinions, but being open and honest about it. Which imo is the opposite of harmful: presenting arguments for X while admitting that we can’t all do X perfectly is still helping promote X, and is reassuring others that it’s worthwhile to do a partial amount of X, because every little bit helps some animals.

    • Leo says:

      “grain farming kills more animals than meat farms”

      In fairness, most of that grain is being grown to feed livestock

  57. Baby Beluga says:

    It’s worth noting that ethics offsets run the risk of double-counting. For example, if Alice spends $0.06 to convince Bob to go vegetarian, and Bob goes vegetarian as a result, they can’t both claim credit for all the animals saved by Bob’s vegetarianism.

    Of course, it’s not like a factor of two changes your analysis much, as you point out. Just an interesting thought.

    • Matt says:

      Its OK – utilitarians mostly don’t ever do any math anyway.

      • Wrong Species says:

        But they use words like logic and rational, which is what people who are good at math do. Therefore, they are using math. QED

      • Zebram says:

        I actually made a special scale in my garage to measure moral value. It measures it in picoutils. Watch for it to appear on Amazon in a month.

  58. Le Maistre Chat says:

    1) “Eat beef, not chicken”

    What do you say to Hindus? Besides “Ha, your religion is illogical”?

    2) If utilitarianism is true, why care about the categorical imperative at all?

    • Irenist says:

      1) With the honorable exception of Scott himself, “ha, your religion is illogical” is usually as far as it goes.
      2) Well, some utilitarians use deontology or even virtue ethics as heuristics within an overall consequentialist framework. Also, obvious hypocrisy makes a cause harder to sell to other people, since most people do believe in some version of the categorical imperative–so there’s a pure effectiveness issue, too.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Ah yes, rule utilitarianism. Which I think of as admitting that the utilitarian calculus is beyond a human mind. You need a heuristic (what Burke called “prejudice”) in favor of the rules set down by a superhuman source of knowledge, be it an omniscient being or the sum of human tradition.
        As far as effectiveness, most people believe in God too, but Western vegetarians seem to have no interest in them. Like, I don’t think a vegan consciously thinks Hindus are unethical for eating dairy products, but it’s a logical consequence of veganism being the only ethical diet.

    • Linch says:

      “Drink milk, don’t eat eggs.” is probably a more applicable algorithm for Hindus (a plurality of them are already vegan or vegetarian anyway).

  59. Let’s say that someone hires me on craigslist to kill his wife and children for a million dollars. I do so, because I’m sadistic and find it amusing. As penance, I then donate $500,000 to a top-ranked EA charity.

    … am I a good person?

    • Linch says:

      Killing people is bad. Donating to a top-ranked EA charity is good. 2 Discrete Events.

      Whether a *person* could be good or bad is a category mistake.

      • Personne says:

        Then : Is this a good moral choice ?

        If we leave in one of the wealthiest countries, we can kill someone around us and steal money from them, and then use this money to save more lives in the third world.
        Why don’t we do it ?

        • Adam says:

          You could just kill old rich people who are about to die anyway, right before they’re going to bequeath everything to a dog or an art museum or something, and send all their money to AMF instead. Surely, that one is okay.

        • Linch says:

          The flippant answer is that your question basically reduces to a trolley problem, which has already been discussed ad nauseam.

          The more serious answer is that you probably shouldn’t because:
          a)you’re likely to go to jail
          b)it’s likely that your time in jail+reduced employment prospects means less EV, in terms of total donations than if you worked a normal job and donated instead
          c)something something civilizational structure something something social contract mumble mumble.

          I’ve argued before that as a practical matter, you should aim to maximize your utilitarian obligations but satisfice your other obligations. Ie, you don’t have to be the best lover or the best parent*, but you should strive to be an adequate one before you use your excess resources for improving the world.

          *or friend, or neighbor, or law-abiding citizen

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      Let’s say that someone hires me on craigslist to kill his wife and children for a million dollars. I do so, because I’m sadistic and find it amusing. As penance, I then donate $500,000 to a top-ranked EA charity.

      … am I a good person?

      You should probably donate the whole $1 million, because good or bad you’re going to jail.

    • Matt says:

      Absolutely! As your moral adviser, I suggest you save 2 lives in Africa for $2.95 and come out 1 full metric utilon and a cool $999,997.05 ahead.

  60. Your point 1 suggests that if your maximand is total utility, eating animals that you were given a tolerably pleasant life is a plus, not a minus. So perhaps the optimal strategy is to spend your money creating better sources of information on the treatment of animals so that people who share you views can pay farmers to provide them with animals whose lives had net positive utility.

    • DensityDuck says:

      As I said in an earlier comment. A valid answer to “farms suck!” is “make them suck less”.

    • Tibor says:

      This a good argument. I always found it quite strange that in a sense, the end goal of many anti-animal suffering activists is genocide. Farm animals are essentially artificial species that only exist because we use them and they would cease existing if we stopped doing that.

      As I posted above, I think that the “bio” farming can be a good alternative for someone who cares about animal suffering but is not entirely opposed to the idea of killing animals for food (on a tangent – I am not sure why raising animals for fur is that bad…provided that the meat is also used, I don’t see how that differs from regular farming, that said I find fur coats to be rather distasteful looking, but that is beside the point :)). Unfortunately, there is also a lot of ideological baggage attached to the bio industry. Using GMOs would be a great way to reduce the necessity of using excessive medication for animals and pesticides and fungicides for plants. This could make non-industrial farming cheaper, reducing the price of meat labeled as bio, thus raising both the meat quality for customers and decreasing te amount of suffering of an average farm animal. I think that in this the situation in the US, where GMOs are legal is better than in the EU (where recently the head of an EU panel that was also to advise on the GMO questions was sacked after saying that there is nothing wrong with them…I could look it up if someone is interested in the story). As long as anti-GMO remains a religion in the EU, things are not likely to change much though.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        While I generally find the GMO hysteria du jour to be irrational, they don’t decrease biocide use in farming across the board. Right now at least, they tend to increase herbicide use and decrease pesticide use. I know you said pesticide use, which is correct, but leaving out the effect on herbicide use leaves an incorrect impression.

        • Tibor says:

          I did not know that. How do they increase the herbicide use?

          • DensityDuck says:

            Since your GMO crops are immune to RoundUp, you can just hose the stuff all over the field instead of having to narrowly target the weeds to avoid the crops.

          • Deiseach says:

            That’s part of the opposition to Monsanto: they produce “RoundUp Ready” seed, which means that you can spray their pesticide (which they manufacture) but only their pesticide on their seed (which is copyrighted out the wazoo).

            This increases yields because the crops don’t have to compete with the weeds, but you can’t use any other seeds (because the RoundUp would kill them) and you can’t use any other pesticides (because the GMO crop is only engineered for RoundUp resistance).

            So if you commit to GMO crops, you’re committing to “I will buy all my seed and all my pesticide for ever after from Monsanto” (because if any other company tries to make a generic RoundUp knock-off, Monsanto will haul their asses into court).

            Never mind that spraying pesticide everywhere naturally results in it being blown (because the wind is a thing) outside the fields and onto either neighbouring farms (which are screwed if they don’t also have the GMO RoundUp Resistant crops) and wild flowers etc. which has a knock-on effect on wildlife which would feed on the wild plants.

            So you pretty much end up with all the farms nearby needing to use RoundUp Ready seed and RoundUp pesticide or else they’ll be outcompeted on productivity by the neighbour who uses the RoundUp seed and pesticide and their own crops are vulnerable to the RoundUp spray blown around.

            Myself, I also think the “But GMO crops are proven safe for human consumption!” isn’t really that knock-down proven yet; after all, humans have been consuming wheat for millennia, yet coeliac disease is a real thing. If GMO crops become a really mass human food, what effects might they have in a hundred years’ time? I think it is too early to say “Oh it’s perfectly safe and anyway, humans have been cross-breeding strains of plants and animals for the whole of agriculture, this is exactly the same thing!”

          • “which means that you can spray their pesticide”

            Roundup is a Herbicide.

            ” but only their pesticide on their seed (which is copyrighted out the wazoo).”


          • Tibor says:


            I don’t find the “you have to use their product” as a very good argument against GMOs. If they give you a bad deal, it creates a strong incentive for their competition to create something similar. Maybe this is not possible because of the patent. But then this is a good argument against patents, not against GMOs.

            By the way, there are even “natural” GMOs. There is this wasp that carries this virus which overwrites the genetic information of those infected by it (butterflies, actually).

            Also, on a much more modest level, turning a wolf into a chiwawa is more or less the same process, only longer (one could argue that you are not injecting particular genes from an entirely different species, but there is nothing like a “chicken gene” or a “human gene” in the sense you could not eventually get it by natural mutation and recombination within the species. GMOs just make this process faster and more directed.

            If someone calls for testing the particular GMOs more before they are distributed, it may be a reasonable argument. But most of those who oppose them tend to do so for views that can hardly be described as anything else than religous. Come to think of it, it is quite funny that the people who oppose GMOs and those who oppose stem cell research tend the be on the other side of a political fence.

          • Chris Conner says:

            Deaseach said:

            So if you commit to GMO crops, you’re committing to “I will buy all my seed and all my pesticide for ever after from Monsanto” (because if any other company tries to make a generic RoundUp knock-off, Monsanto will haul their asses into court).

            Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, expired in the US in 2000. There are many, many competing producers of glyphosate-based herbicides. (Source.)

          • Deaseach said:

            “So if you commit to GMO crops, you’re committing to “I will buy all my seed and all my pesticide for ever after from Monsanto” (because if any other company tries to make a generic RoundUp knock-off, Monsanto will haul their asses into court).”

            Chris Conner replied:

            “Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, expired in the US in 2000. There are many, many competing producers of glyphosate-based herbicides.”

            This struck me as an interesting example of the power of stylized facts. Deaseach’s version makes a much better story, so people who see it (not necessarily from her) are likely to remember it and repeat it. It fits what they want to believe, so they are unlikely to check to see if it is true.

            It would be interesting to compile a collection of such, ideally covering a wide range of ideological and other views—”facts” that lots of people believe, that fit the views of those people, and that are easily demonstrated to be false.

            Widespread medieval witch burnings.

            Columbus thought the world was round and his critics thought it was flat.

            Medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat.

            The Chief Seattle Speech


          • Tibor says:

            David: Well, there is this on Wikipedia. It does not contain GMO patents but it mentions Columbus (although I am not sure how that fits the pattern of something what people want to see as a fact because it reinforces their worldview…maybe only in the sense of “people in the past were so stupid, we are so much smarter today”).

            Otherwise, I like your idea. And the rationalist community seems like the kind of people who would like it too – and able to provide wiki-like platform on rational wiki perhaps? Although I am not sure if it is not dedicated to epistemological information only. In any case, it would be nice to make a list of “common politically charged misconceptions” one could use to false-check all the factual claims people make (and it is not all too impossible that I believe some of these false claims myself) and to link other people to when they mention them.

      • Deiseach says:

        Thank you for the corrections, David Friedman. Observe the deleterious effects of meat eating over decades on the human brain! 🙂

        (Or posting too late at night after not enough sleep). Yes, herbicide not pesticide (very obvious stupid mistake on my part) and patented not copyrighted (ditto).

        Monsanto should sue me for libel, nicht wahr?

      • Steve says:

        “I always found it quite strange that in a sense, the end goal of many anti-animal suffering activists is genocide. Farm animals are essentially artificial species that only exist because we use them and they would cease existing if we stopped doing that.”

        By this logic, distributing contraceptives to humans is also genocide. There’s a pretty huge difference between ‘killing a bunch of sentient beings that already exist’ and ‘not bringing a bunch of sentient beings into existence.’

        • Nornagest says:

          I think the objection is not so much with causing a bunch of individual animals not to be brought into existence, as with causing a species of animal to pass out of existence through lack of motive to keep it around. Giving contraceptives to people doesn’t have this problem, because people usually want to keep reproducing even if they don’t necessarily want to reproduce right now.

          Doesn’t make sense from a hedonic utilitarian perspective, though, at least not without adding a bunch of epicycles. Which is fine by me, since I’m pretty sure hedonic utilitarianism is wrong, but I imagine Peter Singer would disagree.

        • I think his point is that abolishing meat eating doesn’t just reduce the population of particular subspecies of animals, it reduces it to close to zero. If someone came up with a drug that produced intense pleasure and sterility, such that freely distributing it could be expected to reduce the human population to zero in a century or so, it wouldn’t be absurd to describe that as genocide.

        • Tibor says:

          Well, I guess others answered for me, but I would just like to confirm that their interpretation of my interpretation of the word genocide was correct 🙂

      • Michael says:

        “Genocide” comes with a lot of negative connotations that I don’t think apply here.

        We’re precluding a massive generation being born into lives of incredible suffering, in favour of a much smaller generation being born into lives that are worth living. If that’s genocide, then we’ve officially found the one acceptable form of genocide.
        (Would you consider philosophers who oppose the Repugnant Conclusion to be genocidal?)

        That much smaller generation is either the happy milk-cows of a vegetarian world or the much-reduced number of humanely raised cows in a world like David Friedman proposed, in which we buy cruelty-free meat. (As I question whether it’s economically or environmentally viable to raise cows at our current level on consumption without the efficiency of factory farming.)

        • Tibor says:

          I admit that I used the word genocide partially for the dramatic effect.

          It mainly comes from a discussion with a vegan whom I asked why he was vegan (I understand reasons for vegetarianism, did not understand reasons for veganism) and when he explained to me that his concern was about animal suffering (uncluding using cows for diary milk), I pointed out to him that if we don’t do that, there won’t be any cows (well, probably there would be a few left in the zoos or something), because (maybe only most species of) cows do not exist in the wild and would not be able to survive there. He replied that it would perhaps be good because they produce a lot of greenhouse gases and so it would help fight global warming. I was a bit confused whether his reasons for veganism was then that he cared about quality of animal lives or about global warming, but since he gave me an impression of someone being rather dogmatic, I did not want to press the matter further.

          In any case – I think it is hard to argue that the farm animal’s total utility is negative regardless of the conditions in which the animal lives before being butchered and therefore vegetarianism (with veganism and extending the logic to diary animals and hens it is even more difficult). If the cows would prefer to live and then be butchered rather than not having ever been born, then raising them for meat seems at least from the utilitarian perspective morally better than not (also, their meat provides additional utility to humans). I know cows cannot make such decisions, but suppose you were given a choice between living for 20 years of a relatively careless life and then being shot in the head and not having ever been born (also, suppose there is absolutely no way you can escape your fate if you choose the first option…unless you die even earlier because of a disease or something). I would choose the first option (especially if, like a cow, I could live in blissful ignorance until the day they shoot me).

          Now, if the choice was between living a few years as a prisoner in Dachau and never being born, my answer would probably be different. But it is then a good arguments for trying to improve the living conditions of farm animals (also one reason why I am kind of supportive of the “bio” meat and all) but not for vegetarianism/veganism.

          • Nornagest says:

            (maybe only most species of) cows do not exist in the wild

            The wild ancestor of the domestic cow is the aurochs, which has been extinct since the 1600s. Several other bovine species have been domesticated, and wild relatives of most of them are still extant, such as gaur, yaks, and water buffalo. Some are endangered, though.

          • Linch says:

            Personally, it’s clear to me (over 90%) confidence that the relevant moral unit is the individual, not the species, so if a)cows have moral worth and b)cows live net negative lives, then forcing individual cows to suffer in perpetuity is institutionalized evil.

            I’m actually really ambivalent about whether animals dumber than pigs have moral worth, though a lot of other utilitarians (who are not me) believe that the important unit of moral worth isn’t whether animals could think, but whether they can *suffer.*

            I’m confused by people who believe groups have value over individuals. (This also propped up when I hear intrinsic, rather than just instrumental, arguments for language preservation. If people aren’t willing to speak the language, surely it means the language has outlived its usefulness?) Will such a belief imply that an Earthquake in Iceland is a much greater tragedy than an Earthquake in Sichuan?

          • Michael says:

            I completely agree with you that if an animal lived a happy life, it’s fine to kill and eat it at the end of that life.

            “But it is then a good arguments for trying to improve the living conditions of farm animals but not for vegetarianism/veganism.”

            This is our point of disagreement. Precluding that suffering may not be as good as reversing it, but it’s sure better than letting it happen.

            Since this improvement hasn’t yet happened, (and I’m personally skeptical that it ever will) until animals live lives that are net-positive, refraining from eating them is still the right moral stance.

          • Jaskologist says:

            If individuals are the relevant unit and species are not, should we stop worrying about endangered species? Whatever dies out is going to get replaced by individuals of some other species. Often, they are endangered precisely because some other species turns out to be better at living in their habitat than they are. Preservation of the spotted owl involved shooting a lot of barred owls, and they’re not even really different species.

          • Linch says:

            Jaskologist: That will be the natural conclusion of my beliefs, yes.

            I do have some degree of moral uncertainty about this issue, and a lot of these claims are contingent on current unknowns about animal cognition, capability of suffering, etc.

          • Tibor says:

            I should attack my own example…Imagine you have a farm of human clones who would have never been born. They are harvested at a random time in their life for organs (when their “normal” copy needs them), otherwise they spend their lives in the middle of Siberia and never come in contact with the outside world. They are killed painlessly in their sleep and never learn that his is not a normal way to live. Apart from that their life is fine, in fact, they do not have to work and just have to keep themselves reasonably healthy (I added the organ donor twist after remembering hearing about a film with the same plot).

            Now, following my previous argument, I would have to declare this as a good thing, at most we should try to improve their living conditions. However, somehow I cannot endorse that and the whole idea just seems abhorent. I cannot explain why within the utilitarian framework, however. So either is my utilitarian reasoning wrong, or this is another example where utilitarianism fails to adhere to intuitive morality, or to put it more harshly, where utilitarianism gives a wrong answer.

            I think the reason we care about extinction of other species is not really moral. Existence of various species of animals simply makes us happy, we can see them in the zoo or in the forests, we can be bewildered by them in a nature documentary and so on. At the same time, there is probably a level of hoarding 🙂 You simply do not want to lose any possibility. You will not see the vast majority of species, you will not even hear about them. But the thought that they are gone forever fills people with the same kind of feelings as any loss of opportunity.

            Michael: I think that since the goal of animals living lives they would prefer above non-existence is by no means unreachable, you are unnecessarily settling for a suboptimal solution. At the very least one could try to convince people of eating meat only from farms where animals are treated well by some measure. There are farms where the cows get to go out every day (during summer) to walk around more or less freely and eat grass, then they come home for the night, are fed some more and in the morning they are milked (and diary cows need to be milked to avoid health problems, so I doubt it is something that makes them suffer in any way, maybe it is even pleasant for them). Then they are killed – in a much more humane way than most animals die in the wild, also later. If an animal life is worth living in the wild, then it is much more worth living on a farm like this (yes, you cannot “roam free”, but most animals do not do that anyway and when they do it is driven by necessity, not desire to see the world or anything). A life in the wild is gruesome enough to give one quite a low bar for what is ethical farming already and while (most?) industrial farms probably do not meet that standard it is not so hard to reach it. If you argue that life in the wild is not worth living, you end up arguing for wiping out wildlife. That would be quite an original worldview. I doubt you would get anyone (beyond the “Nuke the wales” initiative :)) ) to support it though.

    • Leonard says:

      Right. If you have a source of meat from farm animals that are being raised in a humane way, then Scott’s recommendations reverse. That is, you should be eating chicken > beef > veggies.

      Also, if chicken utils are really comparable to human utils, you should start trying to convince vegetarians to stop it, because they can and should increase world utility by demanding humanely raised chicken meat. There might even be a charity to try to convert vegetarians, which you could give money to offset eating factory-farmed meat. One wonders how much money it would take to convince the marginal vegetarian to give it up. 6 cents per year?

  61. Max says:

    TL:DR. Why should I care about animal suffering when there is so much human suffering? And I dont even want go into suffering in Indian slums vs First world problems “suffering”

    And those animals are raised for human consumption. They are food, they wouldnt exist otherwise. And without food guess what? -more human suffering

    • Psmith says:

      “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.”

  62. Echo says:

    “Use Ethics Offsets By Donating to Animal Charities”
    Man, the pope should really get into this market. It could be quite indulgent.

  63. Deiseach says:

    a meat-eater with a little pocket change to spare can bask in near-unlimited moral superiority even to their most scrupulously vegan friends

    As someone with an evangelical vegan/animal rights activist sibling, almost thou persuadest me 🙂

    Re: fish – do fish really have enough brain to be considered able to suffer? That they would feel pain when being caught and killed, yes, but can farmed fish really be considered to suffer in the same way, not even talking about the same amount, as battery hens?

    Re: pasture-fed beef – Irish dairy and beef cattle are pasture-reared, only being brought indoors and fed on silage etc. for the winter (I don’t know if you ate meat when you were living over here and if so, how it compared to American meat) so the American feed-lot model doesn’t hold true. If you want to argue, I’d say that intensive pig rearing is probably worse (not as bad as hens, not as good as cows). It’s also pretty bad for the environment (there is constant argument about pollution of ground water and rivers and lakes from the run-off of slurry from the high level of pig-farming in the Midlands and border counties).

    Re: eggs – are there not the same requirements in the USA about labelling on egg cartons as here? The relevant legislation is this and if you’re labelling your eggs as “free range”, you have to be licenced and comply with the regulations, which even for “free range” (and there are three levels of this: free range, free range – traditional, and free range – total freedom) sound stricter than the ones you’ve given:

    (c) ‘Free range’
    This term may only be used where:
    (i) the stocking rate in the house and the age of slaughter are in accordance with the limits fixed under (b), except for chickens, for which the stocking rate may be increased to 13, but not more than 27,5 kg liveweight per m2 and for capons, for which the stocking rate shall not exceed 7,5 m2, and not more than 27,5 kg liveweight per m2, (ii) the birds have had during at least half their lifetime continuous daytime access to open-air runs comprising an area mainly covered by vegetation of not less than: — 1 m2 per chicken or guinea fowl, — 2 m2 per duck or per capon, — 4 m2 per turkey or goose. In the case of guinea fowls, open-air runs may be replaced by a perchery having a floor surface of at least that of the house and a height of at least 2 m. Perches of at least 10 cm length are available per bird in total (house and perchery), (iii) the feed formula used in the fattening stage contains at least 70 % of cereals, (iv) the poultryhouse is provided with popholes of a combined length at least equal to 4 m per 100 m2 surface of the house.

    There is also a voluntary standard run by An Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) which again licenses producers and is even stricter.

    Obviously Big Ag in America gets away with more than over here! (Even though a lot of EU countries – including ones you wouldn’t expect, like the Netherlands, have failed to comply with the requirement to do away with traditional battery cages by 2012).

  64. grort says:

    What about health concerns? At some point I absorbed a health message saying “avoid red meat”.

    • Evan Þ says:

      I’ve heard that message too, from a practicing dietitian in my family. FWIW, she also says vegetarianism or pescatarianism is probably healthier than either red meat or poultry.

      • Tibor says:

        What I heard ( 🙂 ) is that while theoretically, poultry > red meat in terms of health, it is not true if we are talking about the kind of poultry that you buy regularly in the supermarket. It would be true of chicken raised on a farm without hormone-enhanced food and stuff like that. But since cows are not pumped by these things so much, they end up being the healthier alternative. But I am no expert.

  65. DensityDuck says:

    Never mind, asked and answered.

  66. DensityDuck says:

    Dude, we mutilate cows all the time by removing their horns. (That’s what the “polled” in “polled Herefords” means.) And putting nose-rings in bulls is not just a fashion statement. If you want to say “yeah but what we do to chickens is worse”, you’re right, but it’s not as though we don’t surgically alter cows to make things easier for us.

  67. Tibor says:

    I was going to mention almost all of the footnotes…then I found out they were already part of the article. Still, let me elaborate a bit:

    1. I am not sure the free-range egg regulation is the same in every country. I would expect the EU regulation to be more, well, regulated. That is usually bad, but in this way could be considered good. I am not so much opposed to regulation that only says “if you want this label on your product you have to obey these rules, otherwise you can still sell it but without the label (although I think quality checking private companies that sell the results of their research and commercials to products they are not evaluating would – and to some extent do already – do the job more efficiently than any government body in my opinion). It could be a placebo, but I think that when I buy free-range corn-fed (I mean the hens are corn fed) eggs in Germany or the Czech republic (the regulation is EU-wide, so it does not make a difference), they taste, or at least look a bit better than the caged eggs that are not corn-fed.

    2. I can definitely recognize a difference between “bio” chicken and a “regular” one (and not just on a price tag). The bio chickens are not fed with hormones and get to actually run around and their meat tastes and even looks differently (they are more yellowish and have bigger bones). I could probably see the difference between bio beef and regular beef as well, although I would not expect it to be that huge (while the bio beef is really very dear) since cows are not treated as bad as the chicken.

    3. I personally do not have a problem with animals being killed, they are killed in nature as well and often in a very gruesome manner (it is hard for me to imagine a worse death that being digested alive by a snake, perhaps save for methodical torture which humans however only tend to apply on their own species). Then again, before the snake swallows them, they don’t live in more or less a concentration camp all their lives. So to me, a clean solution is not to stop killing animals, but to make their lives better before we do so. I think that the bio meat is more or less addressing that (and it is probably healthier than hormone infused chicken from an industrial farm). It usually costs about twice as much as regular meat (and I don’t know how it is with farming subsidies…pretty much everything agricultural in the EU is extremely subsidized and regulated, it is a horrible system and I don’t have the nerve to go through all the regulatory paperwork to find out whether the bio farms actually end up with more subsidies than the industrial farms). A regular meat to bio meat conversion would cost quite a bit. Possibly less if everyone in the EU were not so much against GMOs and the stuff were legal here, but still probably significantly more than regular meat. Rule of a thumb – it costs twice as much as non-bio. So if your goal is not to stop animal killing but only the suffering prior to that, it gets more expensive. Then again, it comes with some benefits – you end up buying higher quality meat.

    Btw – “Bio” is the same as “organic”, but here the term bio is much more widespread…both are equally stupid, but I will try not to start a rant about that 🙂 )

  68. Good Burning Plastic says:

    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.

    Well, for starters a cow has over 100 time the brain mass of a chicken.

    • John Schilling says:

      But less brain mass than a human infant. I have a modest proposal for connoisseurs of red meat who want to edge their way towards veganism…

  69. Pete says:

    Apologies if this is a well answered point, and I haven’t read all the comments so it’s possible that it’s been mentioned above, but doesn’t this logic allow you to murder people so long as you donate enough money to save X lives where X is enough to offset the suffering caused by the murder?

    Ironically, reading Scott has made me less and less utilitarian over time.

    I also have a problem with referring to cows as more “evolutionarily advanced” than chickens, even in quotes. It’s a meaningless term imo.

      • Pete says:

        Thanks. This was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. It was such an obvious point that I knew Scott must have thought of it. Not sure he really gives a satisfactory answer though.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I think it’s because Scott is seeing how many extreme actions have to be taken to be a consistent utilitarian and instead of abandoning it, he still tries to argue in favor it. For many of us, it’s very unconvincing.

  70. HeelBearCub says:

    First, consequentialism. From a consequentialist point of view, “is it okay to cause a good thing to happen even if…” always gets answered yes.

    I’m surprised that this hasn’t been brought up already. Doesn’t this argument completely fall apart when you contemplate the inverse?

    “Is it okay to cause bad things to happen if …” always gets answered no in a consequentialist framework.

    You can’t selectively apply consequentialist reasoning only when you like the answer.

  71. Matt says:

    I think Footnote 4 is a major consideration for fish vs mammals. If you believe killing an animal is less wrong then murdering a human, you implicitly accept that moral status matters. Even if a chicken is close to a cow, the approximation that 1 animal =~ 1 animal, breaks down when considering species vary order of magnitudes in neural complexity as you change class. How many chickens are 1 million microscopic zooplankton worth? Or a million sea Sponges or jellyfish with no CNS? I’d say not even one. [Not denying the ecological importance though.]

    I’d say a concerned vegetarian can eat fish with much less analysis. As the fish get smaller and provide less meat per animal they approach non-consciousnesses and the terms roughly cancel, similar to cow vs chicken. So a vegetarianism doesn’t need to agonize over salmon vs anchovy because there’s a close moral harm/kg.

    I leave with this SMBC comic on optimal animal consumption:

  72. Elissa says:

    It’s also (in many places) not too difficult or expensive to buy eggs from chickens raised on pasture, which means at least 25 square feet of outdoor space per chicken.

  73. Brian Slesinsky says:

    I’m not taking this too seriously, but since my girlfriend is a falconer, I wonder how to calculate the offset for that. If it’s a passage bird then it would be hunting in the wild anyway, and falconers generally make sure their kills get a quicker death than they would in the wild, not to mention that falconers have a freezer unlike wild birds resulting in less meat waste. But is it really waste if some other animal eats it? And if you think about it, nothing is really wasted since even rotten meat is being eaten by something.

    Deciding what calculations should be in the spreadsheet, let alone what weights they should have, seems nearly impossible. Environmentalists at least agree that we should try to avoid destroying natural habitat. Animal rights reasoning could probably be used to justify any conclusion.

  74. Nero tol Scaeva says:

    Why not fish instead of chicken or beef? I’m not sure about the implications (e.g., cost, sustainability, suffering) but eating beef as your sole source of meat seems pretty unhealthy.

  75. Cadie says:

    I would like to be a vegan – it meshes with my values – but find that the personal cost is far too high, given that I have digestive problems and a vegan diet leads to either insufficient calorie intake or constant discomfort alternating with pain and inability to work or be productive much of the time. I care about animal welfare, and am willing to inconvenience myself for it, but not to the point of doing my body and mental state serious harm. Reducing or eliminating meat consumption is great for those who can, but for those who rely on animal foods for health reasons or because they can’t afford a vegan diet, I don’t think adopting such a diet anyway is at all a reasonable thing to ask of them.

    I haven’t looked into the donation offsets very much; will be doing so now. I’ve been modifying my diet to eat more pork and beef and almost no chicken anyway, and fewer eggs all purchased locally from farms I know are genuinely cage-free and reasonably humane. Avoiding chicken and eating fewer eggs is an inconvenience I can live with and my health seems unaffected.

    What about dairy? I’ve heard conflicting things about this… is making an effort to eat more dairy products and less flesh food a good swap for the animals? Does it matter if the milk is organic and/or locally sourced from more humane dairies?

    ETA: From the standpoint of maximizing food available for humans, in a theoretical/future world where there’s even distribution, a MOSTLY vegan diet with a small amount of meat would probably be ideal. This is because there is some land that can’t reliably be used for crops but does support animal life, and eating some seafood doesn’t reduce plant food availability. Only a little bit of non-animal food can be “grown” in the ocean, some kelps and algae.

    • anonymous says:

      If you need easily digested vegan calories, try instant mashed potatoes in large amounts.
      Pour into them olive or coconut oil, if you need further calories.
      Instant mashed potato is better than ordinary mashed potato because it’s easier to eat in large amounts, while unlikely to cause digestive discomfort.

      Also these particularly healthy chips:

      To greatly improve digestibility of grains and legumes, soak them overnight and then cook them much more thoroughly than usual – twice the usual cooking time if necessary (just remember not to “char” anything because it releases nasty chemicals).

      Or, with legumes, try ones that have been “shelled” or “hulled”, that is to say, have had their outer layer removed. This makes them more digestible.

      Visual examples with hulled lentils and peas:$_35.JPG

      Also, consider avoiding “whole grain” rice or wheat, and instead try pearled barley or hulled millet as brown rice substitutes – and consider cooking them for a longer time to improve digestibility.

      A vegan diet *should not* be a challenge to digest.

      • DensityDuck says:

        The issue is when people with no idea how to cook (and no idea that cooking is even a thing beyond “put in pot, heat ’til hot”) decide that they’re going to be “vegetarian” or “vegan”. And so they go to the store, grab not-meat off the shelf, make some limited effort to produce edible food (mostly consisting of sauceless pasta with steamed broccoli) then decide that vegetarian life sucks and go back to meat.

  76. Sebastian H says:

    This intersects with a huge problem in EA/utilitarian thinking.

    If you subscribe to the utilitarian line of thinking that leads to Eliezer’s AI risk arguments (i.e. even a vanishingly small chance at saving bazillions of future lives from being cut off before they are born translates into a moral urgency to spend a lot more on AI risk), there is a much more certain cause that you are overlooking which is easily available–being VERY anti-abortion.

    So far as I can tell the number of AI risk promoters/people who publicly worry about AI risk who are also strongly anti-abortion are essentially zero. In fact the number of utilitarian ethicists who are strongly anti-abortion appears to be very small. In order to justify being pro-abortion using just utilitarianism, you have to have concluded that the average aborted life would have been on balance negative. That is difficult to justify, as the number of people who seem to believe that their own life (no matter how crappy it may seem from the point of view of a middle class US citizen) wasn’t worth being born is tiny (as is the number of people who wish that their children had never been born).

    Or if you take a slightly different fork on the utilitarian calculus (call it the ecological disaster fork) where you treat animals as having high enough moral worth that humans are actively bad for the net suffering in the world, you should take a very strongly, extinction path-for-humans, stance in which forced contraception/abortion should figure prominently. The number of utilitarians who take this stance is also very small.

    This suggests that utilitarian ethics is being used more to justify priors, rather than reason to moral conclusions, and/OR that utilitarian calculus has some sort of limiting factor on analyzing future lives which lets the limit of their effect on present decisions approach zero at some distance from now to the future which isn’t being explicitly recognized (which would be relevant for the pascal’s mugging feature of Eliezer-style arguments).

    • Murphy says:

      Your logic is flawed.

      Utilitarians often don’t count future-lives with some exceptions for courses of action likely to lead to a large number of reasonably close future people suffering horribly, like the prospect of your grandkids suffering terribly due to your current actions.

      AI Risk: even if you ignore future-lives and only count the 7 billion living humans worrying about AI and similar X risk is pretty reasonable. 7 billion lives is a lot. Even if your odds are 1 in a million of them all being killed by something it’s worth quite a lot of investment to avoid that.

      Utilitarianism and abortion: you seem to be neglecting to include changes in utility for the mother and any other family members. Though even if that didn’t outweigh it, as I mentioned above, utilitarians don’t all count future-lives.

      Forced contraception/abortion: If you actually believe that and have goals rather than acting out of empty symbolism then no, you shouldn’t do that at all because the chances of you actually convincing a non-trivial number of people is tiny. It would be like investing all your money in a charity which throws it into a furnace. An obvious waste of resources.

      • Sebastian H says:

        This wasn’t an argument against AI risk. If you accept the future lives argument used in AI-risk arguments, it has strong implications for abortion. So far as I can tell these implications are never actually translated into the abortion argument. It also offers enormous more certainty per action (abortion definitely cuts off an enormous number of future lives, the number of current actions which can definitely effect AI risk are unknown but almost certainly tiny).

        I’m not ignoring changes in utility for the mother and other family members. In order to overcome a utilitarian argument against abortion under utilitarian terms you need to show that the NET utility of being born is negative–something which almost no one believes for a first, second, third, fourth or fifth child. Perhaps at some point (10th child? 12th?) you get there, but for the vast majority of abortion cases that won’t be true.

        This is a bullet which is almost never bitten. That doesn’t mean that strong utilitarians HAVE to be anti-abortion, but the fact that they almost never are strongly suggests that something is getting weighted very strongly in the utility function or in a non-utilitarian moral calculus which isn’t being explicitly addressed, or that they are using utilitarianism to justify their priors, rather than reason to conclusions.

        • Murphy says:

          OK, let’s go just with utilitarians who count future-people-utility.

          You’re also implicitly treating it in terms of individuals.

          Lets consider 2 scenarios.

          1: A woman has a baby at 20 and has no more children, the child lives a nice utility filled life.

          2: A woman aborts one fetus at 20 and has a baby at 25 and has no more children, the child lives a nice utility-filled life.

          Why should a utilitarian consider the first scenario better?

          Indeed if the second scenario involves the mother finishing college first and getting into a stable relationship before the birth it could involve a significant number of additional utilions for mother, child and some third party.

          Alternatively lets try 2 more scenarios.

          1: A woman has lots of sex and eventually gets pregnant, has a non-personally-traumatic abortion and later dies childless.

          2: A woman lives a life of abstinence, never gets pregnant and later dies childless.

          Why should a utilitarian consider the first scenario worse?

          Indeed the first may have a happier life with all the happiness utilions for all the sex.

          From the utilitarian viewpoint you personally don’t matter, negate your existence in time and replace you with someone who gets more utilions points and we’ve got a winner.

          Very few utilitarians are quiverfuls trying to have as many kids as possible or similar but I think that may be down to the obvious dis-utility of everyone going too-crazy on the old reproduction front on a limited planet.

        • Carl Shulman says:

          Plenty of total utilitarians say it is better to have more children ceteris paribus (although not necessarily the best thing to do with those resources), but that it is too demanding an ask, especially because it leads to less good than comparable sacrifices.

          “This case then brings out that (contrary to, er, just about everyone currently working on this topic) there isn’t even any fundamental deontic procreative asymmetry. All else equal, it’s wrong to prevent good lives from coming into existence, just as it’s wrong to bring bad lives into existence. In everyday circumstances, we’re not obliged to procreate because not all else is equal — it would be hugely demanding, most obviously for the gestating woman, but I think there’s also some plausibility to the idea that people have a moral prerogative, not easily overridden, over their genetic material, which makes it difficult for morality to demand that they create a biological child. But these reasons are specific to human biological procreation; they do not advert to bringing people into existence in general (which would include bringing unrelated people fully-formed into a distant existence where they won’t impact upon the agent’s life at all).

          I conclude that the widespread belief in a fundamental procreative asymmetry is a result of people’s failure to recognize these contingent (even if perhaps humanly universal) confounding factors. Even the abstract form of the standard case introduces confounders, by contrasting a putative negative duty (do anything but this: procreate [given that the kid would turn out miserable]) with a putative positive one (do precisely this: procreate [given that the kid would turn out happy]). This is not the way to test for a fundamental normative asymmetry between good and bad possible lives.

          By contrast, when we control for confounders by considering a simple case like Distant Realm, there no longer seems to be any fundamental asymmetry. (Do your intuitions agree?) You’re not obliged to procreate, but that’s because your claims and interests matter, not because the possible future person’s interests don’t.”

          This is the stance that says “give 10% of your income” rather than “give everything until you are in poverty”.

          And if you can save the lives of dozens or hundreds of poor children in Africa for the cost of raising a child yourself, it will be very easy to buy ‘offsets’ as in the OP.

    • Froolow says:

      I think this is a reasonable comment and it should be debated, but I don’t think it is a knock-down argument in the case of vegetarianism (it may be in the case of the AI risk argument, I’m not sure because I think that that AI risk argument is bunk for other reasons)

      (Also just to note there’s a comment thread where Jaskologist raises this issue in a slightly different way below, in case you want to see replies to that too)

      Following on from your logic, I am not just interested in protecting potential lives *post* conception, but also *pre* conception – anyone who is not constantly reproducing is committing pretty much *the* moral sin because they are not creating more humans to experience hedons. The only exception would be if you could prove that the marginal child you would bear would have a lower than zero quality of life (overall, and once corrected for their descendants, which is an exceptionally high bar to clear). For sure, contraception is a moral evil at least the same order-of-magnitude as abortion and many more people use contraception than get abortions, so you should oppose condoms at least as strongly as you oppose abortion.

      Since most people would find this a ridiculous conclusion (some people might not, to be fair), it must be that we care more about *actual* lives than *potential* lives (possibly at some appropriate discount rate). The slogan is that we care about “Making people happy” rather than “Making happy people”. That then collapses into the standard debate of when a foetus becomes a person, which is sort of orthogonal to EA.

      I don’t think we’re epistemically overconfident about the suffering a foetus can feel – we have a pretty good model of what stages of development a foetus goes through, so I believe the experts when they tell me that foetal suffering isn’t a relevant concern. Even if they were off by a couple of orders of magnitude I’m not sure it would make a difference.

    • ” In order to justify being pro-abortion using just utilitarianism, you have to have concluded that the average aborted life would have been on balance negative. ”

      Not in the sense you are using it, I think.

      Suppose I believe (as it happens I don’t) that each additional person makes other people worse off—the central claim of the population movement fifty years ago. Then it might be the case that the aborted life would have been positive in that that life was worth living, but that the net effect of that life would have been negative.

      • Sebastian H says:

        Yes, that is the other possible prong of the fork. But if that is true, there are all sorts of other implications regarding the necessity of reducing world populations do political implications for non fetuses which very few utilitarians seem willing to sign up for. And that obviously doesn’t apply to The Pascal mugging style AI risk arguments that want to count all possible human beings until the heat death of the universe.

  77. Ivan says:

    If all meat eaters were conscious about what they were doing I think all these issues would be moot (and so I applaud your dialogue).

    Are you aware of what goes into producing your food? Would you be able to do it yourself (slaughter an animal) in a conscious way? If so, good for you, I respect and fully support your choices.

    If not, well then you’re delusional.

  78. Shmi Nux says:

    Due to a much larger environmental footprint of beef per calorie, by switching from chicken to beef you are funging today’s chicken suffering against future human suffering. Which is a bonus if you hate people.

  79. zz says:

    Discussion question:

    I currently eat soylent, which I DIY. I source my protein from whey and get the cheapest stuff I can find that’s put-into-my-body quality, which means I’m driving demand for cows in horrible conditions.

    Before I did soylent, I did this paleo thing wherein I ate about 3 pounds of vegetables and some grass-fed beef every night. Let’s assume the least convenient world in which the cows were raised by farmer Salatin (as featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and killed as humanely as possible, etc.

    Which diet is more animal friendly? The de facto vegetarian one, which almost certainly supports keeping cows alive in factory farms, or the omnivorous one, which almost certainly supported killing cows that had lived as pleasant a life as a cow could reasonably expect.

  80. Jiro says:

    At some point, people here, either Scott or commentors have suggested:

    * Killing wild animals (if you think their lives are negative) or breeding pigeons (if you think their lives are positive)
    * Eating whale meat, for the same reason as preferring cows to chickens
    * Having fewer children to reduce the amount of meat eaten by future generations
    * Opposition to abortion on similar grounds to supporting vegetarianism
    * Meat-eating offsets
    * Granting ethical considerations to simulations or to hydrogen atoms (This one was a few articles ago)

    These all have two things in common:
    * Most vegetarians would be appalled by them.
    * They are not good ideas if you are a vegetarian based on purity or signalling considerations and just think you are concerned about animal suffering.

    Conclusion left to the reader.

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      They are not good ideas if you are a vegetarian based on purity or signalling considerations and just think you are concerned about animal suffering.

      Could it be that vegan/vegetarians are some breed of vegan/vegetarian deontologists?

    • anonymous says:

      I think that the point about whale meat was a joke.

      • Jiro says:

        It’s a joke because because of the very effect I’m referring to. It’s funny because it shows incongruity–the incongruity between vegetarians’ stated reasons for being vegetarian–which would lead one to conclude that whale meat is much less bad than chicken–and vegetarians’ actual reasons–which we know lead to strong disapproval of whale meat.

        • anonymous says:

          I thought that the butt of the joke was Scott’s simplistic assumption that all animals matter equally (and that you can measure the morality of a diet simply by counting animal heads), not vegetarianism or environmentalism.

          The reasons for whale meat being worse than chicken meat are independent of vegetarianism, and they are fairly obvious (whales are an endangered species and chicken aren’t; furthermore whales are a much more sophisticated and intelligent animal than chicken, and thus closer to humanity in the way it suffers).

          There is nothing in vegetarianism regarding whether or not all animals matter equally, or which animal matters more (a vegetarian doesn’t eat either whale or chicken, so the matter doesn’t concern him).

          • Jiro says:

            The same argument applies for whales as applies to cows–even though the whale is more intelligent and sophisticated, that only gives it X times more moral weight, and X probably isn’t going to be large enough to make up for the fact that there are many times more chickens killed per serving than whales.

    • Carl Shulman says:

      “Having fewer children to reduce the amount of meat eaten by future generations…These all have two things in common: Most vegetarians would be appalled by them.”

      This seems like the odd one out in that list. There are correlations between vegetarianism, environmentalism, and environmentalism-based antinatalism.

  81. Yildo says:

    1. This seems like the opposite of advice you would get from the point of view of carbon footprint. Cows produce a lot of methane in their digestion, which is more potent than carbon dioxide for global warming. Switching from red meat to chicken reduces carbon impact.

    2. This argument assumes that the moral unit is the organism rather than the cell. All multicellular organisms including you and me are composed of billions of cells which are also independently alive. Why not assign moral value to individual cells instead?

    • fire ant says:

      1.: Yes, that would probably shift the balance more toward chicken, if you count the negative moral value of climate change effects.

      • Milan says:

        And there we also have the problem of finding a proper ratuo of human lives to chicken lives, since global warming projected death rates are in the millions afaik.

    • Groober says:

      Yes – I eat a small amount of meat in order to minimise environmental impact of my diet on the planet. My conclusions is that chicken is better than dairy or beef per kilo (although the quantities differ) and I’ve tried to act in this direction.

    • sweeneyrod says:

      2. Because cutting your hair and similar acts have no moral relevance.

      • Nornagest says:

        Your hair and nails are dead tissue; they wouldn’t have any moral relevance even if we did attach worth to individual (living) cells.

  82. Lyle Cantor says:

    > 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.

    This is a rather large hole. And lampshading it doesn’t seem useful. A cow brain is about 500 grams, a chickens is about 4. If we go by brain mass a cow is about 125 times more valuable. If a neocortex is needed to have moral worth, cows are infinitely more valuable. When you don’t understand what gives rises to the attribute you value and that attribute you disvalue, you are not in a good position to make these kinds of high-resolution trades. Not eating meat entirely seems like the conservative move. Assuming 50 chickens are worth more than one cow is the type of thing that could backfire catastrophically once we learn more about brains and our values.

    This trade is deliciously counterintuitive. But the deliciously counterintuitive is a memetic spice that should be approached with some degree of distrust.

    A pond snail has about 11000 neurons. Suppose you found a tribe whose members ate about 50 snails a day. Would you try to convince them to switch to one or two Long-finned pilot whales per year for the whole tribe? A Long-finned pilot whale has about 37,200,000,000 neurons in its cerebral cortex alone – about 30% more than a human.

    • Irenist says:

      When you don’t understand what gives rises to the attribute you value and that attribute you disvalue, you are not in a good position to make these kinds of high-resolution trades.

      Indeed. Without a good theory of where qualia, intentionality, and rationality come from, you might as well argue that cannibalism > eating chicken because maybe p-Zombies.

  83. John Schilling says:

    I think it is a shame that what is probably the most important part of this piece is left to the first footnote. Because this always happens.

    Like most people, I don’t have any moral qualms about painlessly killing any food animal this side of a whale. If it’s not specifically self-aware, and aware of its own past and future, replacing Happy Cow N with Happy Cow N+1 is morally neutral. Also like most people, I genuinely want the cows to be happy – and from my experience on ranches and dairy farms I know that they mostly are, but there’s room for improvement, and then there’s all the chickens. And yes, I understand that when GloboAgriCorp slaps a “free range” label on a package of chicken, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.

    And like most people, there’s very little I can do about this in isolation. This is an issue that calls for collective action. We need organization that will stand up and say, “This is what Free Range means, and this is the label you get to put on your product if it is the real deal, and these are the millions of people who won’t buy your stuff if it doesn’t have that label”. And if it’s the FDA that’s going to do this, we still need someone on the outside to look over their shoulder because regulatory capture.

    But whenever we talk about this, the somewhat complex problem of farm animal suffering is “simplified” to the non-problem of farm animals being killed, and every organized effort that could be working towards a useful end gets redirected towards the impossible, undesirable cause of farm animal elimination. The suffering of some cows is recognized only for its value in providing carefully-edited, grossly misrepresentative propaganda pieces for a movement that can accomplish either nothing of substance or the extinction of all cows, happy or not.

    I hunt when I can, I prefer beef to chicken for my farmed meat, and I prefer free-range to not even though I know it’s a scam as often as not. I’ve got other causes on my agenda so I’m not going to be leading any reformed, rationalist movement to reduce animal suffering, but if someone else wants to take up that cause you know what you can expect from me. From past experience I expect I’ll mostly be hearing from people who want to tell me that Meat is Murder, and that just makes me want to take down my rifle and decide what animal to shoot today.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Here is such an organization.

      • John Schilling says:

        Thanks, that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for. It seems like right now they don’t have the scale to offer me much beyond “Hey, you know Whole Foods is good about this sort of thing”, which yes I already knew. But their ambitions are larger, which makes them potentially helpful in the future.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          What do you mean by “scale”? Whole Foods is a big company with lots of suppliers. Isn’t that scale all by itself? Most of the problem of expanding is the customers wanting such endorsement. I can imagine that while it deals with many farmers, it deals with few retail outlets, and it may be difficult expanding to others with different needs. For example, its process might be expensive, acceptable for Whole Foods, but not other outlets. But at least it has a definition.

          It’s not just that Whole Foods is endorsed by this organization, but each piece of meat is labeled with a score. It’s not that Whole Foods is vaguely good but one can look up how good, which a lot of other people in the comments doubted.

          • John Schilling says:

            For reasons including the fact that the nearest Whole Foods is about fifty miles away, telling me that you have found someone to individually categorize and evaluate every piece of meat for sale in the vast edifice that is Whole Foods is inadequate to guide my ethical omnivorism. It is, as I have said, a step in the right direction.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            So you don’t mean anything by “scale.”

    • HeelBearCub says:

      @John Schilling:
      Aside from feeling outrage that others are outraged, I endorse everything you are saying. (Except I don’t hunt, but that has more to do with not having the support structure for hunting that I would need. I can expand that if you want.)

      The argument that I would love to see explored is whether carnivorous predators have the “right” to healthy and fulfilling life in the wild. I’m guessing someone has done it, but I haven’t seen it. It seems to me that as soon as you start exploring this question, you quickly start knocking down arguments that impose an absolute moral value on animal happiness. As always, I find that the most fruitful consideration of issues around rights will explore how various rights are in tension with each other.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think there’s any good reason to treat carnivores differently. Wild animals without predators die from starvation and disease instead. Do you know any reason to expect an animal to prefer either of these deaths to death at the hands of a predator?

        • HeelBearCub says:

          What, then, is the difference between a wild animal predator killing an animal and a human killing a similar one?

          Remember, I made this comment in the context of caring about eliminating cruelty in farming, but still not considering eating meat to be necessarily morally wrong.

          If its ok for a wild animal predator to kill a deer/rabbit/mouse/bird, why is it not OK for humans to kill a cow or chicken?

          Of course, we don’t want that same argument to apply to us in the context of aliens deciding to farm us for food. Clearly then there are countervailing arguments, and these arguments are necessarily in tension with each other.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Well, for one thing, we have more choices.

            For another thing, marginal I hope, a hungry predator can and will finish killing its prey. A rifle hunter has less motive to do this, and tracking a wounded animal may mean going through humanly-difficult terrain (and human noses cannot track very well /understatement).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            But that is a relativistic argument, not an absolute one, isn’t it?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Er, probably … but with some absolutish premises. This (humanish*) animal typing thinks the relative facts are what’s important in shopping for her dinner. This less-humanish animal digesting lunch is happy that some other featherless bipeds seem to be using “Don’t cause unnecessary pain [to anyone]” as a premise, and counting us non-humans in.

            Though defining ’cause’, ‘unnecessary’, and ‘pain’ appears to need a lot of relativistic thinking.

            * humanish is not a typo

  84. Michael vassar says:

    Some cage free eggs actually specify the space per chicken. Usually at the EU standard of 350 hens per acre. Animal advocates sometimes say that 50 hens per screen is the humane maximum, but human population densities can be much greater than 50 humans per a screen without distressing the humans, so I find this very far from compelling. If I struedied he advocates more I would consider their claims in more detail, but for now, I don’t.

  85. Michael vassar says:

    It’s confusing to me that there could be any doubt that in expectation cows are more like 100X the moral weight of chicken.
    Brain mass might possibly be morally relevant, but expecting ‘animal count’ to be morally relevant is like expecting heavier ‘objects’ by ‘object count’ to fall faster.

  86. Corwin says:

    Solution to the suffering of farm animals :


    Problem? solved.

    There, i fixed it. forever

    • Michael vassar says:

      Simple approximations to this would include optimizing music for their consumption, and would probably improve profitability as well. Also, What temple Grandin does.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      There’s a discussion of this upthread. If you can think of a better way to do it we’re all ears, but it’s not exactly a trivial proposition.

    • Amanda says:

      I agree that this is the best idea. I have no idea how to actually do it, but I like it in a moral sense and I would be willing to pay a lot more for meat created from wireheaded animals.

  87. Vincent says:

    “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.”

    That’s ridiculous. Hundreds of thousands of chickens were not saved. The chickens were still raised, bred, and killed, they just weren’t sold to those particular school districts. They were sold to someone else, or perhaps they were processed into other industrial food products. Large markets have several tiers of customers that will pay more or less per, in this case, chicken. If you convince a top-tier customer, say, your neighbor who shops at Whole Foods, they shouldn’t eat chicken, then there’s still plenty of demand at other tiers, i.e. deal-shoppers at Wal-Mart. There is always somewhere you can sell dead chickens.

    Small reductions in demand do virtually nothing to accomplish the goal of reducing harm to animals. At best you’re hurting one corporate sales rep’s commission check and making a barely noticeable dent in the farm’s top line. Capitalist enterprises and markets evolved to weather demand shocks like this *all the time*, shocks way bigger than some two-bit charity can generate.

    This sort of sloppy reasoning is why I’m not an effective altruist. You’re handing over your responsibility to help the world to other people who are better at deluding themselves than you are.

    • Urstoff says:

      Does that apply to being vegetarian to? Someone’s going to eat this chicken, so it might as well be me.

      • Adam says:

        If we succeed with friendly AI, there will eventually be 1e52 potential chicken-eaters out there, so really, very nearly all the return we could reasonably expect to achieve from our present actions is to ensure that AI’s utility function includes consideration of chicken suffering and ensures future humans don’t eat them.

      • Vincent says:

        People are vegetarians for all kinds of reasons. If the only reason you don’t eat meat is because you don’t want animals to suffer, then you really need to open your eyes because suffering is absolutely everywhere and all you’re doing by not eating meat is to allow yourself to close your eyes tightly to that ubiquity out of a belief you’re ‘doing your part’.

        There is no fair share of the burden that you can shoulder. You cannot buy your way out of culpability. Believing you’re not participating by not buying or eating meat is similarly short-sighted. Our entire world and everything in it is built on the backs of others’ suffering. Anything you do is going to be a half-measure at best.

    • Matt says:

      ” There is always somewhere you can sell dead chickens.”

      Absolutely not, at some point you raise less chickens. If 50% of americans stopped eating any animal the price would fall and quantity produced would fall. Farms would not maintain the exact same output.

      • Vincent says:

        If 50% of Americans stopped eating chicken, we’d export chicken to countries that will eat our chicken.

        Globalization means that most every good will find a buyer. That’s the whole point.

        Sure, a very sharp drop in demand will cause some suppliers to go out of business. But you’re kidding yourself if the Effective Altruist desire for quantized effect is satisfied here, $X for Y chickens saved. You can’t save a chicken with any amount of money you’d care to spend except by buying the chickens that are raised before they are killed or paying farmers not to raise them or other forms of subsidy.

        • Carl Shulman says:

          “If 50% of Americans stopped eating chicken, we’d export chicken to countries that will eat our chicken.”

          This is claiming chicken supply is completely inelastic, in disagreement with every economist and the fact that investors won’t buy feed, water, and factory farming buildings and equipment when the market price is lower than the cost of those inputs.

          “Economists produce estimates of how much less is produced for each unit that stops being demanded when buyers leave the market for reasons other than price. This is called the cumulative elasticity factor. Their estimates usually depend on collecting data about price, production, and consumption in the real world, and creating an economic model to explain what they have observed. For instance, if a person who normally ate 10 hot dogs per year decided not to eat any and as a result 6 fewer hot dogs were produced, the observed cumulative elasticity factor for hotdogs would be 6/10 or 0.6.

          Estimates of elasticity for meat as a whole are not readily available, because economists tend to focus on smaller segments of the industry, for example specifically on beef or on chicken. Even when they are available, they tend to vary widely. For example, ACE uses estimates of the cumulative elasticity factor for chicken that range between 0.06 and 0.7. Our estimates of the cumulative elasticity factor for fish range from 0.15 to 0.62.”

          “But you’re kidding yourself if the Effective Altruist desire for quantized effect is satisfied here, $X for Y chickens saved. ”

          The effect they’re promoting is not saving individual chickens, but preventing chickens from being created.

          • Alex Z says:

            Right. But in practice farmers make production decisions based on very noisy data. I claim that <50 average meat eaters becoming vegetarians will be swamped by the noise in the data.

    • “Small reductions in demand do virtually nothing to accomplish the goal of reducing harm to animals. ”

      I don’t follow the argument. Reducing the demand results in a lower price, which results in a decrease in supply and an increase in quantity demanded by other consumers. The new equilibrium is at a lower quantity than before, although not as much lower as you might expect if you looked at only the initial change.

      A point another comment by someone else made quite a ways up the thread.

    • Deiseach says:

      My cynical side says the school districts were more interested in the monetary savings from meatless meals than they were about animal rights/suffering.

      I agree that small-scale movements like this probably don’t make a huge difference (so the schools in one part of the USA didn’t buy our chickens? Okay, we’ll sell them to the Army or prisons or hospitals or other large institutions needing to feed lots of people as cheaply as possible) but on the other hand, if it’s to get big enough to make a dent, a real dent, in the market, then it has to start somewhere.

      I don’t know how well a campaign would do or how long it would take to make most Americans go meatless. That’s the question, isn’t it?

  88. Alex Z says:

    Slight tangent: where can I find the best argument that animals have moral value? Ideally something that does not presuppose consequentialism would be best.

    I have limited time to devote to this so please dont recommend a whole book or some such.

    • Adam says:

      Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a good and very short overview that is actually just an overview and not an advocacy piece.

    • ButYouDisagree says:

      You don’t have to be a consequentialist to think that outcomes matter. Virtually everyone agrees that if an action has bad consequences, that counts morally against that action. And virtually everyone agrees that human suffering is a bad consequence.

      To make the step to animal suffering, consider what makes human suffering bad. Is such suffering bad because of facts about the life it occurs in? Or is it bad because of its phenomenal quality, e.g. intensity and duration? Many people are drawn to the second view. In that case, other facts about the sufferer’s life, e.g. their psychological and physiological traits, don’t seem relevant. And this implies that despite non-human animals’ psychological and physiological differences from humans, their suffering counts as much as humans’.

      If you want a defense of extending moral concern to animals that doesn’t look at consequences at all, Tom Regan is a prominent advocate of animal rights

      • Alex Z says:

        Thanks. While far less certain of my moral beliefs than I used to be, I am for the most part a deontologist. So there are indeed certain actions which have bad consequences (even really bad consequences) which I find nonetheless morally unproblematic.

        EDIT: Thanks a lot for the article. It actually engages with my view on the source of rights which makes it very useful to me.

  89. ButYouDisagree says:

    A big problem with ethical offsets for vegetarianism is that it tries to do away with an active Schelling point. The problem of animal suffering is enormous. But because it seems like we have a huge obligation, if we dwell on the size, people just feel guilty and do nothing. Luckily, we’ve already decided on what allows you to discharge your duty: if you stop consuming animal products, you’ve done your part. (This solution has the added bonus of working on agent-relative moral theories, not just consequentialist ones.)

    I worry that publicizing ethical offsets for vegetarianism will cause your readers to think, “Even though animal suffering is a huge problem, it doesn’t even require that I stop eating animal products!” And then they feel like there isn’t a duty to do anything about animal suffering.

    If this post causes more donations to effective animal charities, that’s great. But I worry that the people inspired to donate would have been willing to stop eating animal products, too, if you acted like that was the minimum obligation, but in addition here are some awesome organizations that people should totally give to.

    As an aside, have you tried Gardein products? I like them more than Beyond Meat.

    • Urstoff says:

      I think there’s a significant number of people out there that consider animal suffering an issue but will never stop eating meat (like myself). In that case, these ethical offsets sound rather appealing. I don’t know at what point donating to such charities becomes supererogatory (if I donate $100 and thus have a net positive benefit, am I in the clear?), but I do know that there is a 0% chance I will ever become a vegetarian no matter how many factory farming videos I watch. I imagine there are many other people in the same boat.

      • ButYouDisagree says:

        Are you less likely to donate to effective animal charities because you face pressure to stop eating animal products? If so, are there many people like that? Are there people who are more likely to donate to charities because they face pressure to stop eating animal products?

        I definitely think there are a lot of people who are less likely to stop eating animal products because they hear about offsets, even if they don’t actually contribute to charities.

        I’m not super confident about the sizes of these groups, but it seems plausible to me that “even/especially if you’re a meat-eater, consider donating to these organizations that work against a really important problem” is a more effective message than “for 60 cents you don’t even have to think about animal suffering.”

  90. Adam says:

    How does this analysis change if you include the environmental impact of raising cows? The beef industry requires a lot more resources to produce the same amount of meat. The big push for chickens was that we could create a lot more chicken meat than cow meat, for the same amount of resources. The moral relevance of animals begins to get weirder when compared to the moral relevance of feeding humans.

  91. If you care about animal suffering you can’t use deaths as a proxy for badness because a cow has to be alive for a much longer time before it can be slaughtered than a chicken. According to this analysis you need 1 cow, 1 pig, 6 chickens, or 3 turkeys to be kept alive to sustain a typical American’s mean eating habit. Since I count the suffering of a pig about five times as much as a cow and a cow 5 times as much as a chicken I tend to go with chickens on environmental grounds when I’m eating out but sometimes eat beef anyways.

    Mostly I just try to buy cruelty free meat when I’m cooking for myself.

    • Brightlinger says:

      This seems like a very important distinction. It’s interesting that “plausible” estimates of the value of cow vs chicken suffering (although my “plausible” is now anchoring-biased by your 5-to-1 figure) are actually close to break-even, suggesting there’s not much to be gained from eating different types of meat.

  92. J.V. Dubois says:

    There is one important argument that you ignored: eating cereals may not be that good either! See here:

    Basically the biggest problem not eating meat is that you kill large number of sentient beings (mostly mice) due to a phenomenon called “mouse plague” – basically mouse population suddenly shooting up sharply as a result of storing food in granaries. Most of these mice are killed using terrible industrial poisons, many other mice are starved and dehydrated as their mothers/fathers were killed and unable to care for them. As lives/deaths go, this has to be up there being horrible.

    In short, the topic is complicated even when trying to get the basic facts right (how many animals died, how many sentient being QUALYs were destroyed eating this particular food etc.). And we are not even scratching the surface of truly hard philosophical questions (as in some excellent comments higher)

    • Shixtan says:

      Obviously, this just makes grain-fed meat even worse. But I find it to be a pretty convincing argument for eating grass-fed beef and true free-range eggs

    • anonymous says:

      I want to know if this applies to potatoes as well.

    • Chris Conner says:

      That’s not a terribly good article. In the first place, it makes an argument that Australian beef relies mainly on rangeland and requires very little grain input, but that’s not typical. Globally, only about 9% of beef is fed by grazing (source). In an Australian context, it makes sense to say that the costs of raising grain don’t pass through to beef, but that argument doesn’t apply to the rest of the world.

      To be fair, the author makes it clear that he’s talking about Australian conditions, but then he makes a very poor comparison between costs of meat and plants. He calculates 2.2 animals killed per 100 kg of protein derived from meat. He then calculates that growing wheat causes at least 55 animal deaths per 100 kg of plant protein, a 25 to 1 ratio in favor of beef. But why try to compare beef to wheat in terms of protein when wheat isn’t very good at producing protein and nobody expects it to fill that need? I have never heard anyone advise a new vegetarian on their diet by saying “You’ll need to replace the protein you used to get through meat, so make sure you eat lots of bread.”

      A much better comparison would have been soybeans. They have a yield of about 2.5 tonnes per hectare, versus 1.4 t/ha for wheat, and soybeans are about 36% protein versus 13% for wheat. That’s 900 kg of protein per hectare, nearly five times what wheat produces. If soybean productions kills mice at the same rate that wheat does, then the apt comparison is 2.2 animals per 100 kg of protein for beef and 11 per kg of protein for soybeans.

      To make matters worse, farther down in the article, the author changes the 25 to 1 ratio to kilogram of food rather than kilogram of protein, and claims this applies to pulses just as it does to wheat. That’s completely unsupported by what’s presented.

      The best I can say for this article is that it’s reasonable to point out there are costs in animal suffering and environmental damage from growing plants just as there are in raising animals. But the author’s arithmetic doesn’t provide us with any kind of basis for making a useful numerical comparison.

      (Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian.)

      • J.V. Dubois says:

        I agree, the math is dubious and it does not fit well in a situation for most of the population. I was thinking about not posting the link, but it is a source even if it has flaws. However I still think its main point holds – almost everything people do has large costs for animal welfare. Turning large swaths of land to agricultural production with its own ecosystem is bound to have quite a large effect.

        So in the end we are really talking about scale of animal suffering we cause, not if we can evade it completely. The fact that there is almost no serious discussion if let’s say wheat is easier on animal well being compared to for example rice and that the whole focus is on meat suggests that there is something more going on. Eating meat probably produces more emotional connection, it is easier to think about poor animal being butchered as opposed to countless unknown creatures being killed as part of producing salad with tofu.

        But if we are at it there is another thing that I would like to say when it comes to animal rights. So far for me it seems that people focus almost solely on human vs animal interactions. If animal is made to suffer as a result of human action it is bad, but if it suffers “naturally” or from human inaction (e.g. it starves) then it is not of our concern. This moral reasoning is line with a moral system where humans are the only being with moral value – animals are valued only in so far as they affect our behaviour towards other people. If being cruel to animals can make you bad towards people, it is bad. But if we want to give animals moral value of their own, we can open a lot of new problems.

        To stay on topic of rats/mice, I googled that there may be around 5 billion rats in the world. Rats live in a very dark, Malthusian world – with their really fast reproductive systems they quickly fill any natural limits for their population growth – a limit which itself varies quite a lot depending on season of the year and other circumstances. It is safe to say that every year there are untold billions of rats of various age dying all the time, mostly probably from starvation and related sickness. Only those strong and lucky enough survive. And all this is utterly invisible to us (and animal activists). And we are talking about species that is heavily affected by human actions. There are countless suffering animals around the world and most people even see it as a natural order of things and ideal to strive for. Which is in stark contrast with how we see humans. I don’t think many people would see lions eating children as a state of nature we should seek to preserve.

        But in the end I do not have a good answer for any of this. I see animal rights and animal well-being as an important topic, but I fear that we did not even scratch the surface when it comes to possible issues.

        • Chris Conner says:

          I agree, the math is dubious and it does not fit well in a situation for most of the population. I was thinking about not posting the link, but it is a source even if it has flaws. However I still think its main point holds – almost everything people do has large costs for animal welfare.

          Agreed, the article does point out that consequences of your diet are a lot more complicated than simply asking “Is there meat on my plate?” Once you realize that, the complexity is staggering. Which animals count, and how much do they count? How much do different forms of suffering count? How does wheat compare to rice in terms of rodent deaths? Soybeans? Maize? What if we got all our protien from nuts, instead? Does no-till agriculture versus conventional tilling make a difference? Do mouse plagues happen everwhere, or only in some climates? What about differing trasportation distances?

          Aaaaah! Nearly everyone is going to run away from this sort of accounting screaming.

          The fact that there is almost no serious discussion if let’s say wheat is easier on animal well being compared to for example rice and that the whole focus is on meat suggests that there is something more going on. Eating meat probably produces more emotional connection, it is easier to think about poor animal being butchered as opposed to countless unknown creatures being killed as part of producing salad with tofu.

          I think “something else going on” would also include:

          — Butchering an animal is central to producing meat, and there are no plausible ways to get meat without killing animals. The death of field mice, on the other hand, seems to be incidental to growing wheat. Even if you realize that it’s going on, it’s easy to imagine that you could change the way that grain is grown and stored to mitigate the problem. People are less inclined to attach moral significance to an activity’s consequences if they seem incidental to the activity rather than central to it.

          — People want simple answers, and “don’t eat meat” is a simple rule to follow. When I became a vegetarian, I decided on “no meat, lard, or gelatin” because that rule saves me from having to make a lot of fiddly decisions, and I’m not even doing it for moral reasons. If you are someone with moral aversions to animal suffering, having a clear bright line separating what you can do from what you can’t makes it much easier on your conscience.

          — Purity is a strong component of morality for a lot of people. Things you put in and on your body count more for purity than things that you never come in contact with or even see.

          — If you start to think about incidental animal deaths due to growing wheat, it won’t be long before you realize that your non-dietary choices carry animal welfare consequences as well. Which spatula kills fewer animals as a consequence of its manufacture, the nylon one or the silicone one? Wait, do I have to consider transportation to the store as well? What about the packaging? The marketing? Aaaaah, it’s too much accounting again!

          — And of course there’s good old signaling. “I am displaying my morality by not eating meat” is easy to signal. “I am adhering to a complicated schedule of moral weights and consequences that, in order to minimize harm to animals, dictates a particular diet that includes meat, eggs, dairy, and plants” is impossible to signal without inflicting a three-hour PowerPoint presentation on your audience, and that is animal cruelty in itself, so it’s self-defeating.

          To stay on topic of rats/mice, I googled that there may be around 5 billion rats in the world. Rats live in a very dark, Malthusian world – with their really fast reproductive systems they quickly fill any natural limits for their population growth – a limit which itself varies quite a lot depending on season of the year and other circumstances. It is safe to say that every year there are untold billions of rats of various age dying all the time, mostly probably from starvation and related sickness.

          I guess I’m more optimistic than you on the lives of rats. Humans generally find that their lives contain more happiness than misery and that life is worth living, as shown by the fact that most of us don’t kill ourselves. The capacity to experience happiness and misery is presumably due to selective pressures on reproduction, and rats also live with these pressures. So they probably have this capacity as well, and experience lives that are net positive as well. I doubt that rats are able to contemplate killing themselves, but if they could, I don’t see why their genetic endowment would make them want to any more often than it makes us want to.

          I see animal rights and animal well-being as an important topic, but I fear that we did not even scratch the surface when it comes to possible issues.


    • satanistgoblin says:

      You are aware that cows and chickens also eat grains and do not photosynthesise, right? And have to consume multiple calories for each calorie of meat produced?
      Your argument is bad and you should feel bad.

      • John Schilling says:

        Except that nutrition is not simply calories.

        Most calories, coarsely defined, are nutritionally useless to humans. Heck, most calories are useless to animals; neither a man nor a cow can digest a lump of coal. But the cow can at least digest cellulose, and there’s not a green plant to be found that doesn’t have plenty of that to work with. Quite a few green plants that have nothing but cellulose, and other indigestible-to-humans crud.

        And the choice of plants isn’t arbitrary. Much of the world’s nominally-fertile land is not well suited for sustained growing of human food crops, but does moderately well with cellulose-rich grasses and the like.

        And then there’s all the fun deficiency diseases you get to die from if all you have are calories. Protein is the big player here. Humans can convert calories into at least some forms of protein, but we’re not terribly good at it. There are plants and animals both that are better. But, as would be expected when dealing with two different processes, there are no plants (or, obviously, animals) that are maximally efficient at both photosynthetic calorie-generation and calorie-to-protein conversion.

        It’s not my area of expertise, but the last time I looked into this the most efficient method I could find for turning a hectare of sunlight, rain, and soil into well-fed humans was a whole lot of corn/maize for maximum photosynthesis, and a few dairy cattle to efficiently round out the protein requirements. A few leafy vegetables. Soy and rice isn’t a bad mix either, but soy is more of a jack-of-all-trades foodstuff and for maximum efficiency you really want the specialists.

        Mind you, this isn’t a prescription for the standard American diet. A lot more corn and a lot less meat – but not zero meat. And the farther you get from first-rate farmland, the more meat climbs back into the mix. And if you want certified expert opinion, Cornell University has something to say on the subject as well.

        (There are probably better references, but I’ll admit to bias on the grounds that my mother was a Cornell-educated nutritionist. AFIK it is purely coincidental that her father’s farm became a straight corn-and-dairy operation a few years after she graduated. The part where the pigs tried to eat me may have had something to do with it as well. Mmm, bacon…)

  93. Quixote says:

    Humane eggs are not all a scam. The minimum requirements are minimal, but some farmers raise chickens in excess of the minimum requirements in ways that probably are enjoyable to the chickens. That obviously costs more, but if its important to you, you can pay that higher cost. Some additional diligence is required beyond just reading the packaging, but again, if its important to you, you can do that. If you are in a good neighborhood in a populous city, ethical eggs and even meat should be fairly easy to find.
    I think that to a large extent the opposition to ethically sourced animal products may come from people who started at vegetarianism and justified it through animal welfare rather than people who started at animal welfare and arrived at vegetarianism.

  94. JDT says:

    Worth nothing that “free range eggs” are /not/ a scam in the UK and do actually imply a good quality of life for chickens.

  95. Cole says:

    I think you had your finger on the bigger problem with converting more people to vegetarianism “vegetables don’t taste good”. I’ve never really liked vegetables either, and then I traveled to India. The food was just flat out better for vegetarian options, it was cheaper and tastier. I became a de facto vegetarian for the time I was there, because the option was just more appealing.

    I don’t know what exactly caused India’s population to be so vegetarian (religion, meat availability, or just a food culture that has tasty vegetarian options), but it seems like it should be a much bigger area of study for those that care about animal rights issues. It is the largest most successful vegetarian culture, we could learn something from it.

    • James says:

      Yeah, I love Indian vegetarian food!

      I don’t know what exactly caused India’s population to be so vegetarian (religion, meat availability, or just a food culture that has tasty vegetarian options)

      I’ve always thought of it as being to do with India being a very poor country, and meat being expensive, but India is hardly unique in this respect, so I’m actually not sure that covers it.

      • Adam says:

        I thought it was required of Hinduism, isn’t it? I’ve only ever known a few Indians, but they were all vegetarians because of religion.

        • Tibor says:

          One could go one step further and ask how come a religion that recommends vegetarianism became so successful/developed there.

          For instance, in Europe, except maybe for the Mediterranean, vegetables are simply not an available option all year round (I mean prior to the 20th century), so such a religion would have a hard time there.

          • Deiseach says:

            I know we joke about sacred cows, but in Hinduism the cow does seem to be regarded as a very valuable animal. And they’re vegetarian, not vegan – so they do use dairy products (e.g. milk, ghee) and animal labour (ox ploughs), and that is part of why the cow is so highly esteemed: it gives food and work. So I imagine killing a cow for meat meals would be like killing a sheep for its wool – short term gain, long term stupidity (you get more value overall out of a live cow giving you milk, as you do from a live sheep growing wool every year, than you do from killing the animal).

            Complete veganism would probably require no cattle for either dairy or labour purposes, so I don’t know if it ever took off (okay, the Jains, but they’re a small and special case).

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            I don’t think that can explain the different attitudes of Indians and Europeans. After all, Europeans also used cattle as plow animals and for milk. Killing a cow for its meat wouldn’t be like killing a sheep for its wool. It would be like killing a sheep for its meat, a perfectly ordinary occurence.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m not an expert, but I seem to recall that most branches of Hinduism consider meat-eating sinful to some extent. Most of their believers, however, do not consistently practice vegetarianism; perhaps because Hinduism is nowhere near as centralized, and therefore doesn’t have the same kind of religious law, as people from Abrahamic cultures are used to. It’s mandatory for some religious groups within it, though, as well as some derivatives. The situation within Buddhism is similar, though that’s more monolithic than Hinduism is.

          Jainism does mandate vegetarianism for its adherents, and as far as I know is generally successful in doing so.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          The reason most of the Hindus you’ve met are vegetarian is secretly racism. Brahmins are disproportionately likely to be vegetarian because of their caste’s concern with purity. They are also disproportionately likely to move to to the west (and show up in places where you’re liable to interact with them) because of their caste’s stranglehold on privilege and wealth.

      • Could it also be because India is a source of a lot of spices, and closer than Europe to the sources of others? Through most of history, spices in Europe were expensive, so although they were used they might not have become part of the normal cooking of the masses in the way they did in India?

    • Murphy says:

      Yep, if meat wasn’t so much more tasty I’d have no problem with being a vegetarian.

      Anyone who claims tofu tastes similar/good in any way is either deluded or a liar.

      • Nornagest says:

        There is such a thing as good tofu: I’m a fan of mapo doufu, for example. It’s just not a good meat substitute.

        (Lest I be accused of bias here, I’m not remotely vegetarian.)

        • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

          I think Tofu has to be seen, at best, as a cheese substitute. As a meat substitute it just doesn’t cut it.

          • Irenist says:

            I think “meat substitute” as a goal is the root of a lot of the problems. During my vegetarian days, I was pretty content subsisting on lots of beans n’ rice-based dishes, curries with lentils, etc., where I wasn’t attempting to have the legumes not be legumes. (As Mexico has taught us, you can do A LOT with beans and avocados, which are some pretty hearty vegetarian fare right there, and not trying to be meat.) But every time I had tofu at home (i.e., not at a good Asian restaurant) or bought some godforsaken veggie burger, I always just felt deprived. But bean burritos with avocado? That tasted like it was meant to, and I never felt deprived. (N.B., this doesn’t work if, like Scott, you actively dislike vegetables. My wife is sorta sympathetic to vegetarianism, but “hates beans.” That’s a tough one.)

          • Matt says:

            Tofu is not an effective substitute for either and using it as nearly always ends in disaster.

    • Emily H. says:

      It definitely seems like there’s a “virtuous circle” aspect to it: more people are vegetarian (perhaps initially for religious reasons), so there’s a bigger incentive to make delicious vegetarian food, and because there’s more delicious vegetarian food, more people decide it’s not a huge sacrifice to eat vegetarian. The same thing has happened in the US/UK since the 60s or 70s: the more people become vegetarian, the better the vegetarian options in stores and restaurants become, which in turn makes it easier for a person like me who isn’t totally passionate about animal rights to be vegetarian.

  96. Anonymous says:

    >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.

    It would surprise me if it wasn’t in the hundreds, honestly. Having been in contact with chickens I feel barely more remorse for killing them than I feel stepping on spiders.

  97. Machine Interface says:

    This seems to neglect the important variable of the time it takes for a farm animal to reach killing age. The typical chicken farmed for meat lives only 6 weeks on average. The typical beef farmed for meat lives 36 months on average.

    On the moral angle, it isn’t clear if the “chicken suffer twice as much as beef” claim is made overall on the whole life of the animal, or simply as a measure of suffering at any given moment. If the latter, however, it would mean that it actually takes (3 years * 52 weeks)/(2 times the suffering * 6 weeks) = 13 chickens to equal the suffering of a single beef.

    Where this becomes critical however is on the economical and ecological angle: because it takes 26 times longer to create a beef than to create a chicken, it follows that it takes a lot more ressources, time and space to create 1 pound of beef than it does to create 1 pound of chicken — not to mention negative externalities like soil and air pollution by bovines.

    So while switching from chicken to beef may reduce animal suffering, it isn’t clear that this isn’t entirely cancelled by the extra amounts of *human* suffering it generates.

    For this reason, short of complete vegetarianism, some advocates of sustainable, efficient food instead are pushing for insect farming: because insects have a very short life-span, they turn out to be extremely efficient and profitable in terms of ressources in/calories out — and since insects have much simpler brain functions than tetrapods, it might be that their suffering would be fairly limited too.

    In that angle, it might actually turn out that killing a lot of small and short-lived animals is actually both morally and economically superior to killing a lesser number of bigger animals.

  98. Jaskologist says:

    What I want to know is when you’re going to bite the real bullet and turn against abortion. The vegetarian arguments, the Rawlsian veil, the expanding circle of empathy, concerns about overconfidence, etc, that you use to support other things all argue against it. From the outside, it’s very, very hard to believe that you guys would be pro-choice if not for the fact that this is one of the most sacred points of Blue dogma, and questioning it would entail a true break with the tribe.

    Seeing people get bent out of shape about chickens, but accept abortion really undercuts the moral force of your arguments. When do you finally shut up and multiply?

    • g says:

      Most non-vegetarian people eat a lot more animals than they abort foetuses, and they eat them for less weighty reasons (“because it’s a tasty meal” is surely much weaker justification than, to take a few examples of varying respectability, “because pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous”, “because I don’t want to be fat-looking when I go on holiday”, “because I can’t afford to support a child”, “because my parents will make my life miserable if they find I’m pregnant”, etc.).

      So if you are about equally concerned that first-trimester foetuses might be morally significant as you are that cows might be, that constitutes much more reason to oppose meat-eating than it does to oppose abortion.

      • Linch says:

        This is true. I think scope sensitivity is a huge part of it, plus the desire to convert more Blues that taking such a large anti-Blue political stance will be antithetical to. (See Scott’s earlier post).

        On the other hand many EAs care a lot about prison reform and even the death penalty, so there’s some inconsistency there.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Who said first-trimester? I’d be impressed if vegetarians agitated against even third-trimester abortions.

        • g says:

          Most abortions are first-trimester; most later abortions are for stronger reasons than the average abortion; most very late abortions are for extremely weighty reasons. In practice, “opposing abortion” mostly means opposing first-trimester abortion.

          My impression (which could of course be wrong) is that the typical reasonably thoughtful Blue Tribe member thinks something like this: very early abortions are morally unproblematic; very late ones are comparable to very early infanticide aside from (a) Schelling fences and (b) the fact that a late abortion may be relevant to a medical emergency in a way that an infanticide couldn’t be; in between there’s a sliding scale of seriousness; if we really have to choose between the mother’s life and the baby’s, we should at least sometimes choose the mother’s; so we want laws that unambiguously permit very early abortions and make later ones harder but still permit them in extreme cases.

          The actual structure of the law in most jurisdictions is, in fact, not very different from what that calls for.

          • Adam says:

            That’s roughly how I feel, even though I just called myself pro-life below. I definitely don’t think the cutoff is conception, but definitely not birth, either. I’d probably identify somewhere around 8 weeks when the cerebral cortex has enough synaptic connections that it’s at least conceivable that recognizably human experiences could be had. That mostly just leaves me opposed to late-term abortions, but they’re such a small proportion of the total and mostly for medical necessity that it significantly reduces the scale of the problem to the point that I don’t think it should happen but it doesn’t tremendously bother me.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            You can call yourself pro-life, but the position you just laid out isn’t the pro-life position.

            The pro-life position is that human life begins at conception, and the Catholic pro-life position takes it so seriously that they say that you shouldn’t even try and stop a conception that might occur. Calling yourself pro-life, and not including caveats every time you do so, muddies the waters quite a bit.

            Perhaps that’s your intention. But if you are instead confused about what the actual position is, you might want to update.

          • onyomi says:

            Surveys have found that it is very common for two people to self identify as pro-life and pro-choice and yet have the same actual opinion on abortion.

            The vast majority of the population actually falls somewhere in between “all abortion from the moment of conception, regardless of health threats to the baby or mother, regardless of rape or incest are murder and should never be allowed for any reason, no exceptions” and “it’s okay for anyone to get an abortion at any time during a pregnancy for any reason, up to, and including right before the baby is born perfectly healthy.”

            Perhaps related: I think the majority of the population falls somewhere between “animal suffering is of no consequence whatever,” and “pure veganism is the only ethical choice.”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            You can call yourself a ham sandwich, but that doesn’t mean you are composed of bread and a cured pork product.

            I can call myself a Democrat, but if I am not registered as a Democrat, never give money to Democratic candidates, don’t vote for Democrats and I don’t agree with the policy positions most commonly identified with the party …

            The people who call themselves and act and organize around it believe in life at conception. The people who call themselves pro-choice that abortion before ~24 weeks should be entirely at the mother’s discretion and that after that it is determined in the way that is commensurate with needing to cut off a limb.

            24 weeks is now a Schelling point for the pro-choice position.

          • onyomi says:

            “24 weeks is now a Schelling point for the pro-choice position.”

            I don’t think most of my Facebook friends have gotten the memo.

            The hardcore, politicized members of the two movements may have such clearly defined lines in mind, but most of society does not.

            And I think, in general, defining the abortion debate in terms of the two positions as you’ve described them strikes me as similar to describing the debate on the appropriate size of government as between anarchists and state-owns-the-means-of-production socialism.

            So, are you an anarchist or a socialist? This is an unhelpful question because almost everyone in the US falls somewhere in between (though as an anarchist myself, it doesn’t bother me as much, but I’m also aware that my views on the question are extreme by the standards of my society).

          • Adam says:

            Well, my current Schelling point is 8 weeks, so most of the time, I just don’t call myself anything. Call it mood affiliation. I see the argument play out here and it looks like the people who call themselves pro-choice are going through horrible contortions of their own conception of what makes a particular creature deserving of the right to not be killed, making sure it doesn’t include a fetus, fitting theory to the way they want the world to be, so I call myself the other thing. Put me in the comments section of a religious advocacy website and I’d probably call myself the opposite. Put me in any average part of the world where people gather and I likely would never mention it at all. Ask my wife how I feel, ask my mom, my sisters. I don’t think any of them could tell you.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I agree with what I perceive to be your contention that the pro-choice position is less simple and more nuanced than the pro-life position. Is that an uncharitable re-statement?

            What percentage of people on the pro-life side do you think would be satisfied with abortion being OK up to 4 weeks (leaving aside the difficulty of even determining accurately 4 vs. 5 weeks)?

          • onyomi says:

            I think not just the pro-choice, but also the pro-life people actually represent a greater diversity of views than you might think, especially among the younger generation.

            Personally, I think abortion is deeply immoral if it happens any time after say, 4 weeks to a healthy baby and mother. Yet as a libertarian I also know that making things illegal that people are going to do anyway often has perverse effects. Yet also we might have to accept those effects at a certain point if it means fighting murder.

            Yet at the same time I think it’s not immoral, and certainly shouldn’t be illegal for a woman to get a later abortion in cases like this:

            (Her baby was effectively already dead in this case, but I could also see it as permissible in cases of extreme birth defects which don’t actually involve not having a brain).

            So I have misgivings about making it illegal, but if I were the despot-cum-legal expert charged with setting some national standard I would say something like “no abortion after 4 weeks except in cases of very serious health concerns about the mother and/or baby.”

            Does this make me “pro-life”? “Pro-choice?” In practice, I don’t use either term. I’d just say “it’s complicated.” But I can also easily imagine someone with my views describing themselves as either pro-life or pro-choice depending on how they personally interpret those rather nebulous and extreme terms.

    • nil says:

      To some degree this cuts both ways. I’ve seen exactly one pro-life piece about “maybe we shouldn’t eat animals either” despite the fact that a great deal of pro-life rhetoric about abortion mills or quasi-virtue-ethics disgust over the scale of the practice could come straight from PETA.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Eh, nearly everybody treats human life as unique and deserving of special protection. It’s the ones who try to calculate QALYs for every living thing who are the odd ones out, and they look even odder when they start adding epicycles to allow for Roe v Wade.

        • nil says:

          My epicycle is “the value of human (and all other) life isn’t intrinsic, but rather related to their experiences and relationships” along with being relatively more concerned with suffering than actual killing. As such, the value of an unwanted fetus is very low, and certainly lower than the any of the mammals we eat. It doesn’t seem that any arbitrary to me than your speciesism.

          Your point about overconfidence is well taken, but your lack of consideration of the cost–the Cronenburgian aspects of having a person living inside you without your permission, something I weigh a lot more heavily than “not getting to enjoy pork chops”–is also pretty notable.

          (and before you ask, I don’t have any intrinsic objections to euthanasia or the death penalty, although in both cases I think it is very very important to get the details right to avoid horrible results. If it weren’t for virtue-ethics type concerns, I’d probably feel the same way about infanticide.)

        • Linch says:

          I’m trying to understand your true objection here, since in the comment above you were complaining about EAs being insufficiently theoretically rigorous.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I’m saying that prolifers aren’t being non-rigorous when they don’t worry about animal suffering; their assumptions and reasoning simply don’t point in that direction. The utilitarian and vegetarian arguments, on the other hand, do point towards being pro-life, if we draw them out to their logical conclusions.

          • Irenist says:

            Can’t speak for Jaskologist, but:
            Scott has admitted than on his materialist/consequentialist framework, he only preserves his sanity by “a series of unprincipled exceptions.” Not giving every cent he has to the welfare of Third World animals or something is one of these exceptions, and for “not have all my Blue/Gray Tribe friends hate me” values of “sanity,” I suspect (and suspect Jaskologist suspects) abortion is another.

            Compare somebody like your humble interlocutor here with my loopy Aristotelian metaphysics and my unfashionable virtue ethics. When I say that a zygote has a rational soul and a cow doesn’t, or that justice is foremost a virtue we exercise w/r/t our Near neighbors rather than Far people or Far chickens, the average LW/SSC/EA-adjacent person will understandably think I’m an obscurantist crackpot. Fine. I get that a lot, so maybe I am a crackpot. But I am at least a principled and consistent crackpot w/r/t my metaphysics allowing me to be pro-life and my ethics allowing me to allocate much of my charity to my local parish. Scott isn’t at all consistent in this way, and he writes posts like this whenever that starts to bother him, IMHO. For a rationalist, that seems like a big problem, and I admire Scott a lot for being bothered by it.

          • Linch says:

            To be more specific, you use “nearly everybody treats human life as unique and deserving of special protection” as a piece of evidence in the same chain of argument as an claim that EAs/utilitarians are lacking in rigor because they don’t follow (what you believe to be) the logical conclusion of their arguments.

            It does not make sense to use both as criticisms of EA.

          • Jaskologist says:


            Pro-lifers and vegetarians are operating from different premises. The usual pro-life premises are “killing people is bad” and “fetuses are people.” These do not logically imply vegetarianism.

            On the other hand, the various arguments for not killing chickens/not being racist/not being overconfident do tend to imply not killing human fetuses.

            It doesn’t cut both ways, in other words.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Jaskologist
            On the other hand, the various arguments for not killing chickens/not being racist/not being overconfident do tend to imply not killing human fetuses.

            That’s not always the case. Someone who supports not harming animals may be willing to harm animal fetuses as well as human fetuses.

          • Irenist says:

            Someone who supports not harming animals may be willing to harm animal fetuses as well as human fetuses.

            Yeah, but human fetuses are as sophisticated as lots of ADULT animals.

            Most animal rights-aligned utilitarians are at least sympathetic to Peter Singer-type positions, and thus tend not to have qualms about late term abortions. And there, I think, there’s a clear inconsistency: by whatever criterion one might oppose killing (or at least cruelly killing) a cow, one would have to oppose killing (or at least cruelly killing by tearing limb from limb) a third trimester fetus: AFAIK, a healthy late term human fetus meets every standard “personhood” criterion more than a cow. (I’ll grant Singer that an adult chimp meets his criteria more effectively. But a cow? No way. And vegans/vegetarians are opposed to hurting cows, too, not just chimps.)

            So either oppose third (and maybe second?) trimester abortions, or admit an inconsistency, AFAICT.

            ETA: I think most pro-choice sources put fetal pain at 24 weeks. So the post-24 weeks part of the second trimester is where I’d charge inconsistency here. And of course all of the third.

            ETA2: Let’s say someone shows up and proves me wrong, demonstrating the wit and wisdom of cows. Charge still stands: there is no way a post-24 week fetus is less of a “person” even by Singer’s criteria than a freakin’ chicken.

          • xq says:

            AFAIK, a healthy late term human fetus meets every standard “personhood” criterion more than a cow

            I think it all comes down to this. But is it actually true? You don’t make an argument for it and I don’t know enough to evaluate it. I have heard people make the opposite claim with equal certainty.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Irenist

            This was all pretty thoroughly hashed out in a recent blog entry (in which I was reduced to saying “I support abortion and eat oysters, but neither support nor eat zombies”). I’ll probably end up contradicting my old self here. But, briefly….

            (Well, first I don’t like words like person, sentience, soul, etc — all=the Emperor’s New Suit made of phogliston. I don’t like Singer. I haven’t studied what you mean by ‘sophisticated’, and refrain from the obvious cheap shot, so please excuse me if I’ve got it wrong.)

            May I take it as we might say, a ‘sophisticated’ piece of equipment: very complicated, very well designed, able to handle many subtle differences, etc etc. But a fetus in a womb has nothing for it to handle (and probably not the right brain fuel to run it, either.) It’s like a piece of equipment still wrapped up in it’s crate — except that it’s not even complete yet, it’s still being assembled, it doesn’t even have all its parts yet. Its ‘sophistication’ or whatever it ‘has’, is just potential; it doesn’t exist yet. It may never exist. We might say it’s a vehicle being assembled, getting ready for some driver who may show up later.

            An adult … mouse, let’s say … may have a simpler schematic, but the mouse is complete, and up and running. It’s got all its parts, it’s out there functioning in the world, doing mousey things.

            If a new house is being built, as soon as it’s been sketched and stakes and strings laid out, we can say “I’m going to look at my new house.” But it’s not really a house yet, and won’t do house-y things for quite a while. If someone says, “Hey, that’s my land, you’re trespassing!” and tears down a frame and beams and throws them off his land, that’s worth disputing — but you can’t sue him for the value of a whole completed house.

          • Jaskologist says:


            Maybe I’m just pattern-matching to the things that have been on my mind lately, but that sounds like a reinvention of teleology. You’re basically saying a thing doesn’t have existence until it is fully capable of carrying out its purpose, and I think you’re even determining purpose in an Aristotelian way. Not that this is a bad thing; Aristotle was a smart guy!

            However, it seems like we could easily apply your argument to every child prior to puberty, as well as the physically disabled. The usual “what about when somebody is asleep?” rejoinder to claims that consciousness/rational thought/etc (as opposed to simply their potential) are needed to have personhood would also give trouble.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Jaskologist

            Okay, I was being hasty and sloppy with pronouns and maybe the mouse led me off track.

            Aiui, Irenist’s pro-fetus point was that even an X-week fetus was more ‘sophisticated’ than an adult chicken. Ie that the fetus has something called ‘sophistication’, and more of it, than the chicken. Zis mentioning the age of the fetus gave me the impression that the sophistication (which I described as a sophisticiated piece of equipment) was not completely developed yet. It lacked some parts, had no fuel yet, etc. It was not operational, and furthermore a fetus in the womb had nothing to use it on (nothing to react to, nothing to think about). I compared the incomplete sophistication=device to a ‘house’ that’s just a few pieces of the frame. It’s not a real house yet. (And I got kind of carried away comparing the destruction of that frame with an abortion.)

            By the time the mouse is up and running, so is its (simpler) sophistication=device.

            I don’t like Singer’s equating a newborn baby with a fetus. The baby is up and running, well, kicking and crying and hungry — and breathing. Sophistication be damned, this is a very different creature from the fetus on its umbilical cord floating in the womb. (And now it’s out, it’s no burden on the woman, and there are people who would like to adopt it, so to kill it would be very wrong — as Singer does say.)

            So now I’ve got the fetus and the mouse and the equipment all tangled up in an umbilical cord. I’m going to bed.

            (Jask, there’s a difference between a car that’s still being built and doesn’t have a motor yet, and a car that now runs and drives around, but the motor has been turned off for the night.)

          • Nita says:

            @ Irenist

            there is no way a post-24 week fetus is less of a “person” even by Singer’s criteria than a freakin’ chicken

            I’m sure most vegetarians would allow another person to kill a chicken if it was growing inside their body.

          • onyomi says:

            I just want to note that adult pigs are considered to be at least as intelligent as a three year-old human child, according to what I’ve read, so unless you think killing a three year old human child is no worse than killing an adult pig (or that killing an adult pig is as bad as killing a three year old), you have to admit human life holds a special significance for you (though one could argue that the potential for greater intelligence in the future somehow factors in).

          • Jaskologist says:

            3 year olds are able to converse quite well. I’m skeptical that pigs can do similarly well on a Turing test, but I don’t actually have much experience with pigs.

            Other things that have popped up in the thread that do not pass the experience test:

            -Babies are way, way more of a burden *after* they’ve exited the mother than before. Oh, how I miss sleep.

            -Fish suffer. As a long-time aquarist, I’ve seen many fish expire, and they are not having a good time in those last days. Yes, I know we draw distinctions between suffering and pain and can’t really know what it’s like to be a batfish, but that really just looks to me like making up extra terms so we can get the conclusion we decided on beforehand.

          • onyomi says:

            If you gave pigs human vocal cords, you might be surprised at what they could say… humans also have some parts of our brain specifically dedicated to learning human language, but the absence of that doesn’t necessarily indicate inferior intelligence in other ways.

          • xq says:

            I just want to note that adult pigs are considered to be at least as intelligent as a three year-old human child, according to what I’ve read, so unless you think killing a three year old human child is no worse than killing an adult pig (or that killing an adult pig is as bad as killing a three year old), you have to admit human life holds a special significance for you (though one could argue that the potential for greater intelligence in the future somehow factors in).

            It may not be intrinsically worse, but humans form emotional connections with 3 year olds, and killing one makes the people who were emotionally attached suffer. Also, the type of person who kills 3 year olds is not someone we want free in society.

          • Nita says:

            @ onyomi

            Uh, have you observed a three-year-old lately? This is a three-year-old.

            Apparently, pigs can tell other pigs apart, find and remember good feeding spots, learn who to follow to find food, understand mirrors and act sneakily. My 18-month-old niece can do all that (plus some language stuff we’re going to ignore for the sake of fairness).

            This is not to say I’m not impressed — both toddlers and pigs demonstrate impressive skills. But a 3-year-old is beyond their level.

            @ Jaskologist

            After they’re out, you can give them to someone who’ll take care of them. The issue with forced pregnancy is body horror, not inconvenience.

          • Irenist says:


            I’m sure most vegetarians would allow another person to kill a chicken if it was growing inside their body.

            Sure. Heck, (most) vegetarians would probably “allow” someone to eat a chicken without wanting to invoke state violence against them. That’s an argument that abortion (or ornithophagy) ought to remain legal.

            But moral? Would it be moral to kill something as sophisticated as a chicken, cow, or maybe, just maybe a pig or a primate if
            a) it was growing inside you
            b) you happened to be able to carry it to term without serious health problems in your personal case
            c) in your personal case, you consented to the process that implanted it in you

            Never mind legal. Would that be moral, on the logic that leads some of us to be vegetarian or vegan?

            ETA: I propose that the fetus is akin (although without conscious rationality) to the dangerous escaped nanites in the ST:TNG episode “Evolution.” It was totally justified for Picard to want to kill them in self-defense, but once Data found a way to talk to them, it was obviously morally preferable not to kill them if at all possible. This is your basic “parasitic violinist/homeless intruder” abortion hypo. That hypo makes a good argument–and argument I think I may respect more than Scott–for abortion being legal. But moral? If there are other options? I’m unconvinced. And I think it’s especially hard coherently to maintain a commitment to the morality of it in a case like that if one is committed to veganism or vegetarianism with any of the common rationales, because then rationality (like the violinist of the nanites had) isn’t necessary for you to object to painful killing–you already object to causing pain and death even to irrational animals.

            ETA2: Bull wanders into my china shop and wreaks havoc. Am I legally entitled to shoot it? Yeah, probably. But ought I to kill it? Especially if I’m vegan?!

            ETA3: I’m not arguing about the legality of abortion here, or even trying to clutter up Scott’s blog with a debate about the morality of abortion considered generally. All I’m really asking is if it is ethically coherent for a pregnant vegan (not raped, no incest, no especial danger involved in this pregnancy) to get an abortion, and in particular a late term abortion, where the “animal” capacities of the fetus are inarguably 100% there. Maybe it is coherent. But with respect, I don’t see it.

          • Irenist says:


            I think your analogy is flawed. An infant or a prepubescent child is an incomplete adult every bit as much as a fetus, yet you don’t countenance killing them. And the nociception of the late-term fetus is every bit as much “up and running” as that in a mouse.

            If you want to compare the late-term fetus (or an infant, or a child) to a house, then a mere wood frame is the wrong comparison. A better comparison would be a newly built house that a family is already living in, but to which various additions are planned. The two car garage, the pool, and the upstairs addition to add another bedroom aren’t done yet, but the house is very much already “up and running.”

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Nita – “After they’re out, you can give them to someone who’ll take care of them. The issue with forced pregnancy is body horror, not inconvenience.”

            To what extent is this body horror irreducable? To what extent is it being propogated by memes about pregnancies being a parasitic invasion? I am pretty sure they aren’t the sole cause, but it seems possible they are the primary one.

          • Nita says:

            @ FacelessCraven

            Is that a false consciousness argument?

            My personal opinion on this issue was formed based on biology, before I encountered any “parasitic invasion memes”.

            Unfortunately, due to the prevailing forced optimism about the facts of pregnancy and childbirth, some women end up completely unaware of the risks — and that is a much greater danger than any parasite memes. At worst, the memes can result in obsessive contraception or early abortion, but unattended home births inspired by the idea that childbirth is natural and therefore safe can lead to deaths of newborn babies and their mothers.

            Bonus: Did you know that you don’t necessarily need a uterus to sustain a pregnancy? It turns out that there’s nothing especially “life-giving” about female humans — the real trick is preserving your own life in the process (and a uterus does come in handy for that).

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Nita – “Is that a false consciousness argument?”

            I hope not? Pregnancy and Childbirth are as natural as sex. We can observe how memes about sex make it seem filthy and disgusting and unpleasent. Masterbation has gone from “self abuse” to totally normal within living memory. I can see how people might latch on to the squickiness of masterbation or other sexual acts on their own, but that attitude doesn’t seem super useful or good, and I can see how social memes encouraged and inculcated those ideas and made them social norms.

            Descriptions of children as parasite horrors who ruin the lives of their parents aren’t hard to find. Should we encourage people to think of their children this way? Will that make them happier?

            “My personal opinion on this issue was formed based on biology, before I encountered any “parasitic invasion memes”.”

            Do you think that had nothing to do with the culture you are steeped in? I can entirely believe that this idea can be spontaniously developed in any culture, but I think ours inculcates and encourages it in a lot of ways, and thus makes it much more widespread. If this is a false consciousness argument, then I guess the best I can say is that it seems true to me.

            “Unfortunately, due to the prevailing forced optimism about the facts of pregnancy and childbirth, some women end up completely unaware of the risks — and that is a much greater danger than any parasite memes. At worst, the memes can result in obsessive contraception or early abortion, but unattended home births inspired by the idea that childbirth is natural and therefore safe can lead to deaths of newborn babies and their mothers.”

            All of which are way better arguments than body horror. then again, I’m pretty sure arguing for sexual continence at the expense of contraception and abortion doesn’t nescessarily involve encouraging people to be stupid about childbirth. In fact, it seems to me that the “natural childbirth” idea has a lot more to do with people seeing themselves as just another animal than it does with seeing pregnancy as a positive thing. People spent a lot of time and effort on improving the experience of pregnancy and childbirth before the sexual revolution, and various forms of “natural” birth exploded after it.

            “Bonus: Did you know that you don’t necessarily need a uterus to sustain a pregnancy? It turns out that there’s nothing especially “life-giving” about female humans…”


          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Irenist
            by whatever criterion one might oppose killing (or at least cruelly killing) a cow, one would have to oppose killing (or at least cruelly killing by tearing limb from limb) a third trimester fetus:

            Essence vs accident. Pain of killing is accident: borrow from the future a general anesthetic acceptable to the AMA and the FDA. Then we can talk about the essence of killing either or both. Which we could go ahead and talk about now, that is, in some future blog entry. But I’ll be back in a few minutes with a more interesting Schelling point.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Irenist

            I apologize for the unclarity of my previous response; my bad, too many pronouns with unclear antecedents.

            I’ll try a different way to point out my, er, point. Rather than by counting neurons or whatever, I see birth as the most important Schelling Point and the most sudden (and visible). The differences between baby/child/adolescent/adult seem very small compared to the difference between a fetus and a newborn. Consider their experiences. No sight, floating, never felt a touch of anything except its own limbs so no conception of outside solid objects, never felt hunger or eating — no needs. Moving arms and legs in the warm fluid just for exercise, so to speak. Then comes birth canal, a traumatic experience itself for the fetus, who is now also immersed in and fed by fluids from a woman undergoing severe trauma and fear. Then an outside world where everything is different — well, now there IS an everything, though there’s never even been a thing at all.

            Then there’s poking causing pain, soon there’s pain of empty stomach which he’s never known … probably never known pain at all. His first action is kicking and screaming.

            This newborn is a personality quite different from the in-the-womb personality — a different ‘person’ (Singer go home, I’m talking language as she is spoke).

            This different personality can be grouped along with the robin or mouse: he’s another animal of the outside world, lively, anxious — engaged with outside things.

            (Btw, in this passage I’m not supporting very late stage abortion. I’m describing a ‘best case’ of fetus experience, ie late. Think how much more difference there must be between the newborn and an earlier fetus.)

          • Ever An Anon says:

            By that logic, would MacDuff and I be fair game since neither of us were born? If going through the birth canal is what creates that “different personality,” as your vignette implies, then logically you should be able to terminate at any time after a cesarean section.

            I’m not pro-life, abortion serves an important societal function, but it’s weird and disingenuous to claim that there is a bright line of personhood / humanity at any developmental stage. Which ought to make sense because personhood isn’t a biological fact that can be tested for. It’s either a metaphysical principal or a legal fiction: in either case claiming to see it in nature is on the level of reading tea leaves.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            By that logic, would MacDuff and I be fair game since neither of us were born? If going through the birth canal is what creates that “different personality,” as your vignette implies, then logically you should be able to terminate at any time after a cesarean section.

            Heh, I didn’t either, and I’m told I’m peculiar. I’ve seen in some credible source, a remark that experienced maternity ward nurses can tell which babies in the nusery were Caeserian just by the way they act (or rather don’t act). “Quiet, still — it’s like they aren’t really here yet.” The change that happens suddenly in birth, happens gradually in the crib.

            I used the dramatic occasion to point out how extreme the difference in experience is between a fetus in a womb and a baby in the outside world. An earlier stage fetus would have an even quieter, less stimulating experience in the womb.

        • sweeneyrod says:

          The specialness of human life is precisely what utilitarians reject in my experience. They are the only people who are completely fine with killing 9 people to save 10 and suchlike things, which everyone else has misgivings about due to the sacredness they ascribe to human life.

        • Irenist says:

          Sorry. Wrong subthread.

    • Adam says:

      These are effectively the arguments that eventually convinced me. It makes me feel like a special snowflake on one level, the rarest of rare pro-life persons who is not only not religious, but fairly actively anti-religious, and against virtually all other conservative social policies. The logic is just way too compelling, though, and it seems like you either need to go to ridiculous contortions to justify abortion that would justify much worse things or just ignore the issue completely and support it because you’re culturally opposed to the other side who doesn’t and you think they’re anti-woman (which might even be true, but would have no moral weight in the argument).

      • I’m happy to see that there is someone who apparently made up his mind on this issue for reasons other than tribal motivations.

        However, if it was not mostly obvious and it took a while for the arguments to eventually convince you, that suggests that those tribal motivations are an influence on you anyway, simply not strong enough in this particular case to overwhelm reason completely.

        So you should probably consider the effects of those tribal motivations on all your other opinions (which doesn’t mean they are all wrong.)

        • Adam says:

          I think my biases are more anti-tribal than anything, as in I’m very likely to be highly biased against any position that seems to be widely held for tribal reasons.

          Honestly, though, I’m fairly agnostic on most hot-button policy topics. I originally studied policy science in grad school and the best conclusion I could draw from all of the studies out there is, no matter how shut and closed you think an issue is, doing one thing has worked somewhere at some time and doing the exact opposite worked somewhere else at some other time. I’m not a big believer in universal eternal laws of human social organization.

          Edit: Actually, even that can be explained by an anti-tribal bias, since most hot-button positions on both sides are held for tribal reasons, so I just don’t believe either of them and turn my attention to something else.

        • anonymous says:

          I’m another one – pro-life and vegan – and guess what – I’ve ALWAYS felt this way (while it took a while to change my eating habits towards veganism, I’ve always felt that veganism was a great idea).

          So not everything is about tribes.

    • stillnotking says:

      I would not personally get an abortion if I were a woman, but I don’t support having the state make that determination for anyone, either. That’s pretty much exactly the way I feel about eating meat.

      • Wrong Species says:

        “I would not support murder but I also don’t support the state making that determination for anyone”.

        Abortion is not just a personal choice, like tattoos or plastic surgery. There is a living thing inside of the woman. Maybe you don’t think that life is worth more than the woman’s choice. Make that argument instead of just assuming it isn’t important.

        • stillnotking says:

          Obviously I don’t think abortion and meat-eating are murder, or I would support laws against them.

          There is no real “argument” to be made as to the relative moral weight of fetuses or chickens. Since they can’t advocate for themselves, it depends on our essentially arbitrary emotional valuations. That’s the whole problem.

    • Your point is well taken, but I put much more moral emphasis the ability of women to lead fully autonomous lives in modern society than I do on people’s ability to eat tasty meat.

      • Jaskologist says:

        How does being able to eat what I wish not fall under leading a “fully autonomous life?” What to eat is a choice that confronts us multiples times a day, and most of us even have strong instincts urging us towards meat.

        • If you can’t have an abortion, you might have to give up the idea that you can have sex whenever you want, in any way you want. Many people think this is far more important to having an autonomous life than being able to eat what you want. This just reflects the fact that sexual desire tends to be a very strong desire.

          That said, I agree that restricting a person’s ability to eat what they want is objectively far more restrictive.

          • Deiseach says:

            Many people think this is far more important to having an autonomous life than being able to eat what you want.

            You won’t die from not having sex. You will die from not having food. If your values are skewed to “sex more important to my quality of life than food”, well – a short life but a merry one?

          • It’s not about sex. It’s about knowing that the consequences of choosing to have sex can have far more life derailing consequences than the consequences of choosing ot eat whatever you want.

          • sweeneyrod says:


            “You won’t die from not having sex. You will die from not having food.”

            The correct comparison is not having sex, versus not having meat. If given the choice between celibacy and vegetarianism, I think most people would choose the latter. Indeed, I’m fairly confident that there are quite a lot more vegetarians than celibates.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      When we contemplate the arguments against factory farming for eggs, it’s the chicken we are concerned about, not the egg. If the egg happened to be fertilized, but was freshly laid, we still wouldn’t count the egg as having great moral weight. At some point, very unclearly and hazily and gradually, the forming chick takes on more and more moral weight. This is the argument that pro-life advocates seem unwilling to bite.

      The logical endpoint of your reasoning starts to look like people being unwilling to bathe for fear of removing habitat for a variety of single-celled organisms.

    • mca says:

      The reasoning that leads me to conclude that animals (or at least higher animals) are worth caring about morally is the same reasoning that leads me to care very little about first trimester unborn humans. If you convinced me first trimester humans are sentient and capable of significant suffering, I would oppose abortion. I think it’s not even close to true that the logical conclusion of the “vegetarian arguments” is to oppose abortion.

    • Anonymous says:

      How do you convince a consequentialist that abortion is actually morally wrong?

      Put a single living sperm cell and an egg in a Petri dish. Put them reallllly close together. Now smash them.

      Fertilize an egg cell. Wait a couple months. Smash it.

      What was the difference? You only win this fight (with a Consequentialist, that is) by proving the existence of a reasonable Shelling fence for “suddenly the fetus is experiencing pain” or something of this flavor. Because then, one of those processes “causes” a “being” to “suffer” for some definition of those words.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        Because then, one of those processes “causes” a “being” to “suffer” for some definition of those words.

        I’d like to borrow from the future, a new anesthetic acceptable to doctors for the fetus and made part of the abortion package (for any stage). So we could dispose of that part of the argument.

        For that matter, also a new abortion process that would not appear gory (or otherwise horrifying) to an abortion-opponent. Probably not possible outside Star Trek; beam the fetus to some much better, welcoming womb?

  99. g says:

    On the moral significance of different brain size/sophistication: I find it somewhat plausible that cows might have 40x the moral significance per animal of chickens, but if they do it is probably for reasons that also give them much less moral significance than people. So probably *either* all these animals don’t matter very much at all, *or* they do and the differences (per head) between cows and chickens aren’t so large; so eating cows rather than chickens is probably not a bad move if it matters at all one way or the other.

    (Note 1: Of course it’s possible that there’s some thresholdy effect where some characteristic that cows have almost as much as people but chickens don’t have at all is hugely important. Note 2: I am not actually a moral realist and things like “it’s possible that X has much more moral importance than Y” are shorthand for things like “some people might consider, as might I if I gave the matter enough further thought, that X has much more moral importance than Y”.)

  100. Stefan Drinic says:

    The more SSC I read, the more I wonder why there is a comment section at all, when most of the disclaimers above the blog posts are something along the lines of ‘oh my goddddd stop saying dumb thing X it won’t go anywhere.’

  101. FedeV says:

    I am not very convinced by that argument. You have to look at the amount of resources (mostly, water + energy + pollution produced) required to produce a certain amount of animal calories versus vegetarian calories.

    For example, via The Guardian:

    Meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. IME state that to produce 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water whereas to produce 1kg of wheat requires between 500 and 4,000 litres of water.

    With water shortages being a very serious issue, and water being heavily subsidized by the government, meat calories receive a huge implicit subsidy. While chicken might cause more animal suffering than beef on one axis, on the axis of consumption they probably cost a lot less.

  102. Andy says:

    I’ve been thinking of switching my meat consumption from turkey to Platonic Spherical Cows, would they be more or less the same moral value?

    (133 comments, and I’m surprised nobody made the joke first.)

  103. Irenist says:

    This is a helpful post. I have a specific issue I’d like help with, though, if anyone cares to help:

    I’m conservative w/r/t bioethics: I’m a Catholic virtue ethicist. So I find “animal rights” rhetoric (as opposed to rhetoric about human duty to behave humanely toward animals) troubling, I find the generally extreme pro-choice views of a lot of the animal rights-adjacent community troubling, etc.

    However, I am sincerely horrified by cruelty to animals generally, and by factory farming in particular. I also worry about the environmental impacts of getting lots of calories from meat. So I’d like to donate some money to animal welfare charities–not so much pet welfare charities like the ASPCA, but charities working to reform or replace meat farming but without my donation furthering the “animal rights” rhetoric that I find morally objectionable.

    Are there any such charities? I’d be delighted to help fund research toward lab-grown meat, e.g., or to fund advocacy for Meatless Mondays (or Fridays, being Catholic…) or reforms to farming practices, etc. I can and at some point should research this myself, but I haven’t yet and don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

    (FWIW, I suspect there’s a lot of “red tribe dark matter” people that the average EA rarely encounters who have misgivings similar to mine, and as the “low hanging fruit” gets converted, addressing such concerns will perhaps become even more useful.)

    • Arioch says:

      There’s the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, who mainly work on corporate outreach and against factory farming and are very effective and evidence based:

      Their main downside (and the reason they’re not a recommended charity at ) is that they mainly operate in Germany, which already has much stronger animal welfare laws than the US. As I live in Germany, I don’t consider this too big a black mark, but it does mean that if you live in the Americas the good work they do will (mostly) be quite a ways away.

      Personally, I’m hoping they do well enough to expand!

    • Jaskologist says:

      I was just learning about/reviewing Aristotle’s teleological view of the world, and I think this thread is a great showcase for the problems with abandoning that.

      Those of us who believe that different things have different purposes can comfortably say that you shouldn’t torture the chicken, you should let it run around, and it’s also okay to eat it, because all of these things are consistent with a chicken’s purpose (part of which is being delicious). When you try to reduce everything down to some single factor, while preserving the idea that people shouldn’t kill each other and not driving yourself insane, you go in some weird directions (eating whales was suggested as a joke, but it’s not actually absurd).

      I’m not convinced the project is sustainable. You can see people here trying to figure out if we should evaluate ethics based on number of neurons, types of neurons, calories per week of suffering, number of animals killed per calorie, size of animal, etc. There’s really no clear guide, the answers will take you in wildly different directions, and I don’t think people would actually like where they end up. At that point, it really doesn’t seem any less arbitrary than saying that humans are special and have moral weight that other things don’t.

      • Irenist says:

        Obviously I’m psyched for you to be learning about/reviewing the value of Aristotelian teleology and I 100% endorse your pointing out how this post reveals yet more problems with trying to calculate the ol’ utilons.

        However, I think a friendly caution might be in order:
        There are (at least) two kinds of teleology. I’ll call them intrinsic and artifactual.

        Artifactual teleology is the most familiar: it’s when the artisan’s purpose for the knife is that it cut things, or when Paley’s God’s purpose for chickens is to be delicious.

        Intrinsic teleology is the directedness of things to certain end states. An example of organic intrinsic teleology is an acorn’s genetically programmed non-conscious agenda to become an oak. Examples of inorganic intrinsic teleology would be the way chemical elements have certain properties, the way water “tends” to flow downhill, the way warmed ice “tends” to melt, etc.

        While ancient and early modern thinkers (Cicero, Paley) were delighted to try to figure out the “artifactual” purpose of a chicken in the mind of its divine Artificer(s) as “being delicious to humans,” that sort of thinking is something I’d strongly discourage because (a) absent Divine Revelation in some scripture, how do you know? and (b) because even if you did know, Paley has made it disreputable and it is (deservingly, IMHO) easily mocked.

        Of course, you can still look at a chicken’s intrinsic teleology–to hatch eggs, to wander around pecking bugs and feed with plenty of room, etc., and end up supporting humane farming. In particular, if you also look at human teleology (which ought, I think, to include the virtue of justice as part of the habitual character of a flourishing human), then you see that it is unjust for a human to torture an animal, and thus that it goes against our own intrinsic teleology to do so.

        Anyway, grateful to have a fellow traveler traveling in these parts. But do please give artifactual teleological surmises about organisms a wide berth? My humble suggestion, and of course YMMV.

        ETA: Of course, being domesticated, a chicken is kind of a human artifact, too. But that’s not what I’m getting at.

        ETA2: My comment upthread backing you up on abortion was, AFAICT, making a similar point to the one you’re making here: the longer and more honestly Scott thinks about this stuff, the more Aristotelian answers like teleology and virtue ethics will show themselves to need fewer sanity-preserving unprincipled exceptions. (Speaking of which, some open thread, I really want to comment about how it makes me so sad that Scott’s main exposure to virtue ethics has been “After Virtue” rather than Foot’s “Natural Goodness,” which is rather like having your only exposure to capitalism be an indictment of the USSR rather than that great Milton Friedman clip about the pencils: Scott’s “AV” review kept asking where the heck the positive case was, and having read it a while after it came out, I wish I had been able to say at the time “NOT in AV, and frankly not really in MacIntyre at all compared to a less “literary”/continental and more analytic/rigorous philosopher like Philippa Foot.”)

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Irenist
          the longer and more honestly Scott thinks about this stuff, the more Aristotelian answers like teleology and virtue ethics will show themselves to need fewer sanity-preserving unprincipled exceptions.

          More efficient I think to start looking for support for “utility begins at home”, or at least questioning the current idea that everyone in the world has an equal claim on one’s help (according to their need or whatever). Here’s the more traditional principle, that can take care of a few of his exceptions.

          2. The Law of Special Beneficence*
          ‘The union and fellowship of men will be best
          preserved if each receives from us the more kindness in proportion as he is more closely connected with us.’
          (Roman. Cicero. De Off. i. xvi)

          This used to be one of the main moral precepts; #2 of 8. How did that change, and need it? (And where did Lewis get those headers?)

          * Lewis, _The Abolition of Man_, Appendix.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            So Scott has the principle he needs at hand already!

          • Irenist says:


            I think (although I’m not sure) that the Newtonian Ethics post was sarcastic. I don’t doubt that utilitarianism or consequentialism can be fitted with epicycles along lines like “everyone knows their kith and kin best so charity is most effectively applied to them” or “it would be inefficient to give so much to the faraway poor/to animal rights that your own mental/physical health suffered and you were no longer an effective do-gooder.” But epicycles they would be.

            Worse, it’s still hard for me to see how a consequentialist avoids “give everything above subsistence (or what is necessary to maintain social standing at your job) to a malaria bed nets charity” without allowing not just an epicycle, but an unprincipled exception.

            Now, consequentialism is not alone in having this problem. Christianity has had a painful tension between Gospel poverty and quotidian family flourishing built in from the beginning. But although a common problem, it is a problem.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “Christianity has had a painful tension between Gospel poverty and quotidian family flourishing built in from the beginning.”

            Not from the very beginning, right? In the very beginning, Jesus was returning to earth within the lifetime of his apostles, family flourishing was pointless.

        • Aegeus says:

          Teleology certainly needs fewer “sanity-preserving exceptions,” but does it still produce good results? Lots of philosophies can preserve your sanity. “Do what feels right” would be an excellent moral philosophy by that standard.

          The real issue is that the set of things that help people doesn’t match the set of things that give you the warm fuzzies for helping people, and I don’t think any philosophy can help you with that. It doesn’t matter if my moral philosophy is telling me “Factory-farming makes chickens suffer” or “Factory-farming makes humans not follow the virtue of justice.” Either way it’s creating a moral demand.

          Heck, it doesn’t even solve houseboatonstyx’s problem where people starving in Africa thousands of miles away outweigh your local concerns. Teleology and virtue ethics would tell you “Those people in Africa are unable to fulfill their telos because they’re starving,” or “The virtue of charity demands that you help starving people,” and you’d still be stuck with the same moral demand.

        • Jaskologist says:

          absent Divine Revelation in some scripture, how do you know?

          Well, I mean, don’t we have divine revelation in scripture? Also, it seems to me that artifactual teleology provides the essential basis allowing morality to be a real thing. Am I missing something here?

  104. Oscar_Cunningham says:

    It’s probably worth mentioning that because of economic elasticity the numbers in this post all need to be multiplied by 0.3 or something. When you choose not to eat a chicken, this causes farmers to produce fewer chickens, but it also causes shops to lower their prices which in turn causes more people to buy chickens. On net you only save 0.3 chickens.

  105. Jobin says:

    I think the accounting is almost impossible to do well.

    Suppose in the world there are two people who each meat. They have a conversation, and one of them convinces the other one to be vegetarian. So now one of them is vegetarian. The other one pats themselves on the back for convincing the other one, so from the offset perspective they are animal-neutral. So from a certain perspective, they are now BOTH animal-neutral, even though lots of animals are still being killed and eaten.

    To do offset accounting right, you need to keep track of how much meat everybody would eat in the absence of convincing. Its pretty difficult to avoid double-counting. So from the weird offset perspective, the vegetarian still has an animal-footprint because they were “convinced” while the meat-eater is animal neutral.

    • aphyer says:

      Would like to agree with this. (I actually read the article and then searched for ‘double-count’ in the comments, because it jumped out at me too).

  106. nil says:

    For me, rule one is to not eat pork.

    1.) It’s relatively easy. It sucks to give up bacon, but bacon’s not typically an ingredient–you’re usually just saying no to a side dish in that respect. I’ve been avoiding pork for about five years; the only area where it’s really been inconvenient is in pizza toppings. I think chicken is much more ubiquitous and would be much harder to avoid–the risk that I would cheat would go up dramatically. Plus, pork has a more distinctive taste, which I think has made it easier to develop a taste aversion of the sort that does the heavy lifting in hewing to a vegetarian diet. Finally, I can piggyback on the religious dietary restrictions.

    2.) Pigs are treated about as badly as chickens in objective terms, and they’re really smart. If you think an intelligent creature suffers more from confinement and boredom and/or you simply place a greater moral weight on the experiences of more intelligent species (a yes on both counts for me) then pork has got to go.

    Pig farming is probably the worst of the three for the local environment, as well.

    As someone who grew up on a beef cattle farm, I appreciate the note that beef cows live relatively humane lives–most of their time outside, with mostly unencumbered socializing and lots of space. Could be even better with relatively low cost, too–I’ve never worked the numbers, but I’m fairly confident the feedlot system adds much less value to beef farming than the CAFOs add to pork and chicken operations.

  107. baconbacon says:

    Eggs, milk and dairy are more problematic but as a few have mentioned visiting a small farm will show you that their animals are not being tortured. Getting enough meat for a year requires a small chest and one trip to a farm (if you are far enough away a few coolers and bags of ice is a good idea).

    Offsets in general are bogus.

  108. Albatross says:

    From a pollution standpoint, I consider the most ethical form of meat consumption to be hunting. Farming requires the rabbits and deer to be killed to prevent them from eating the vegetables. But hunting requires a natural habitat. Hunting is also difficult enough that a hunting meat diet is almost certainly smaller consumption of meat. And hunted animals live natural lives right up until they die, usually when they are large. And by killing the animal personally the hunter avoids a lot of hypocrisy and has the opportunity to understand exactly how much suffering they are causing.

    I would donate to hunting groups because they acquire land to be set aside for hunting and they encourage meat production with animals that live full natural lives in nature.

    • nil says:

      Yeah, hunting is much better than any form of obtaining meat this side of roadkill. The death a hunter gives to a wild animal is probably less traumatic than any other way it could go out (albeit also sooner).

      And while I’m on the subject, if you live in a place where hitting a deer with your car is reasonably likely, I really recommend either learning how to field dress an animal or developing relationships with a couple people who have and are in a position where they could get to you within an hour or two. Depending on the impact and how quick you can get the butchering done, butchering a road kill can yield 60+ pounds of good meat, and will probably make you feel a lot better at what otherwise feels like a pointless waste of life.

      • jv says:

        I think the actual killing of an animal in a modern, humane slaughterhouse is more direct and quick. It is at least more regular. I’m learning to hunt now, and much of what they talk about is tracking the deer down after you got your first shot into the animal. Ideally, it drops dead, but not always.

        Perhaps the car ride there is the worst part.

        • John Schilling says:

          Tracking a wounded animal is the part of hunting that you absolutely have to get right. If you don’t find any fair game, or if you shoot and miss, you’ve still had an enjoyable day in the country. If you shoot and wound, and don’t finish the job promptly, you’ve caused real suffering.

          So, while it is relatively uncommon, any decent education in hunting will put disproportionate emphasis on that area.

        • nil says:

          Agreed. I was sort of clumsily mixing two different statements:
          – hunted meat is more humane than meat farmed through typical modern methods, because although the death might be a little uglier, the day-to-day life is probably better
          – death by hunter probably involves less suffering than most other deaths in the wild, which to my understanding usually involve starvation, predation, or some combination of the two.

          Coming back to this thread this afternoon, I realized that the second one really depends on what animals you were talking about. In the context I live, most people hunt white-tailed deer and the main predators are wolves and coyotes. I bet getting killed and eaten by wolves is a lengthy and really, really unpleasant experience for a deer…. but if you’re hunting rabbits, or living in an area where a big cat is at the top of the food chain? Maybe harder to call the bullet mercy.

          • LtWigglesworth says:

            I live in New Zealand, where there are no large animal predators (with the exception of humans of course!) and so if a deer/pig/goat is not shot by a hunter then it would likely die of starvation, disease, injury, or old age.
            So here a bullet is probably the most humane death they could have.

  109. Vaniver says:

    this is counterbalanced by nobody except Gaston getting too many calories from eggs.

    Eggs are a component of many processed foods; cutting them out is considerably harder than cutting out meat for roughly the same reasons that buying vegan food is much harder than buying vegetarian food.

  110. Vitor says:

    I think that many vegetarians / vegans are strict with their diet to achieve a feeling of moral purity. I am 95% vegetarian myself, and I just find the last 5% disproportionally hard. I still call myself a vegetarian, so other people will know how to treat me (I feel slightly conflicted about this).

    If you want to be fully 100% vegan, you need lots of special products: vegan wine (gelatin used to filter regular wine), vegan chocolate (tiny amounts of milk in regular dark chocolate, because few people care), etc. That last 5% purity is even harder to achieve.

    Based on this observation, I mentally order animal products along a primary-incidental axis spanned between two extremes:

    1) meat: the reason that animals get killed
    2) gelatin: used for wine, put into desserts etc, because it is plentifully available.

    If (1) was eliminated, (2) would disappear along with it, as factories substitute gelatin (and trace amounts of eggs, etc) with something plant-based that costs 3.7 cents more or something. The obvious strategy is therefore to avoid anything that is close to category (1). Things like eggs in baked goods are somewhere in the middle.

    Loosely applying this to my consumption choices has lessened the moral burden I feel considerably. I also think it’s important to show other people that most of them can get 90% of the way there before making any real sacrifices. The last 10% is something to worry about once the general population has reached the 90% mark.

    • Anonymous says:

      Have you considered ways of earning piety points that require less investment from you?

      • Vitor says:

        I would if I could flip a switch in my head that changed what issues I feel strongly about. It would certainly make my life easier 😉

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Yes, Rule of 80/20, ie 90/10. 100%, like 100% kosher, can be fun, but I think I get more productive stuff done if I’m not spending that much energy on food. Even avoiding all meat would take too much of my time right now, time away from protecting my scrap of rainforest.

    • Deiseach says:

      You can substitute beef and pork gelatin with seaweed extract (the next time you see carrageenan in a list of ingredients, that’s because it was originally extracted from the seaweed carrageen moss or Irish moss, though other species are commercially farmed).

      I know this because (a) seaweed was a part of traditional Irish diet in the past (b) evangelical vegan sibling – believe me, I know all about vegan chocolate for Christmas/Easter 🙂

  111. Arguments very good… Just thought I might note that beef is much more GHG intensive than chickens. I think a reasonably good solution where its easily available is wild meat. In Australia we have kangeroo meat which roams wild and emits no methane, and costs roughly the same or less than beef. Feel free to buy some roo meat off us rest-of-world!

  112. naath says:

    On the flip side the beef industry is destroying the amazon…

    Personally I experience too much social pressure to eat meat to actually give it up entirely (I’m aware that by not being part of the solution I am part of the problem); but I try to reduce the amount of meat I eat, and certainly don’t eat it at every meal. But then I *like* vegetarian food (which isn’t all vegetables!); maybe if my diet consisted entirely of bread and meat then switching to bread and quorn would be horrible for me.

  113. Possibly Steve says:

    This might read like sarcasm, but it is intended as a genuine question:

    If you believe that animal suffering is inherently bad, why aren’t you desperately trying to pave over the world? There are billions of animals out there in the wild whose lives are nasty, brutish and short, generation after generation, and there is nothing you can do to help them. Quite a few of them even kill and/or eat other animals. Surely a flat and featureless earth would far superior to its current state, given your premises?

    (You consider the existence of wilderness a moral good? Maybe if you just eradicate all the lions (etc), and all the parasites and disease-causing microorganisms, and then field a fleet of drones that administer contraceptives to a carefully calculated percentage of the gazelle population, with veterinarians on call to handle any injuries reported by the drones…)

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Poor animals can’t win. Either it’s “Non-humans cannot suffer because they aren’t sentient” so treat them as badly as you like … or it’s “Non-humans can suffer so exterminate them”.

      This kind of thinking motivates me to donate to space colony development.

      • Daniel Armak says:

        Are you proposing space colonies full of cows and chickens?

      • Adam says:

        Still highlights some of the flaws in our thinking, though. I own four cats, for instance. I don’t let them outside currently, but I used to before one of them was killed by the neighbor’s dog. That has to be immoral on some level if we care about animal suffering. They were no doubt spending their entire days torturing whatever they could find just because it’s fun even though they’re perfectly well-fed, and of course, I have to feed them meat because it’s all they can eat, so some industry somewhere is grinding up chickens to feed my cats.

        Yet someone out there who feels bad about animal suffering is donating money to cat rescue.

    • Alphaceph says:

      Relevant evidence:

      (Warning, this is horrific)

    • Linch says:

      If you’re interested in this topic, Google “wild animal suffering.”

      I do not want to link here because I’m not necessarily endorsing those ideas and I do not want wild animal suffering to be the face of EA (too many inferential gaps).

    • Oscar_Cunningham says:

      Presumably large-brained mammals have the most moral weight, and most of them aren’t wild.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I wonder if whales consider humans intelligent, with such small brains. Elephants might give us the benefit of the doubt.

        • Chris Conner says:

          We humans have invented a quantitative measure that shows that we are actually smarter: encephalization quotient. Whales have never done anything like this, which proves that we are intellectual superior at the task of proving our intellectual superiority.

    • Urstoff says:

      Nature red in tooth and claw and asphalt

    • anonymous says:

      This is very debatable.

      I’ve heard arguments that – to the contrary – the majority of wild animals never encounter a predator, and that most of their lives consist of blissful happiness.

      No doubt animals experience diseases – so do human hunter gatherers – who suffer with diseases and a high child mortality. Yet the lives of hunter gatherers aren’t exactly hellish, in fact sometimes they are celebrated as wonderful. And surely they at least beat being held in cages destined to being butchered as soon as they finish growing up if not earlier.

      I need to do some research, but I’d just like to point out that maybe people here are taking the idea that the lives of wild animals are horrible too much for granted.

      It might be possible to make the case that the life of a premodern Plains Indian is not worth living, but it beats being an Auschwitz inmate.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’ve heard arguments that – to the contrary – the majority of wild animals never encounter a predator, and that most of their lives consist of blissful happiness.

        Considering their maximum lifespan and fertility (“breed like rabbits”), it is pretty clear that the majority of wild animals must either encounter a predator or starve to death, and by early adulthood if not before.

        It is certainly plausible that most of their life consists of blissful happiness. Particularly if evolutionary biology has wired them to think that playing hide-and-seek for high stakes is jolly good fun. But it’s still going to be a short life and the ending at least will be nasty and brutish.

        • Anonymous says:

          Ditto human hunter gatherers.
          Are their lives so horrible?

          “Considering their maximum lifespan and fertility (“breed like rabbits”), it is pretty clear that the majority of wild animals must either encounter a predator or starve to death, and by early adulthood if not before.”

          Well, I’ve tried searching Google for example of average known lifespans of animals in the wilderness. It’s an extremely quick and superficial search, but all example I can find show numbers much higher than the age of adulthood.

          (Edit: Douglas Knight just pointed out that these quote might be leaving out infant mortality, and he may be right, so I deleted all of them.)

          “the ending at least will be nasty and brutish.”
          I don’t see why more so than humans, especially in premodern societies.

          And anyhow, my central points are that:
          1 – Most of the life of animals in the wild is not spent suffering. Think of hunter gatherers for comparison.
          2 – The life of animals in the wild is longer than that of animals in farms. (Actually this one is debatable; I don’t know enough about it).

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I think you are misinterpreting those quotes. The pig one gives an explicit disclaimer that it is leaving out infant mortality. I think that applies to all of them.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I’d just like to point out that maybe people here are taking the idea that the lives of wild animals are horrible too much for granted.

        I agree with you here. Estimating on such a wide, shallow generalization, a variety of good and bad experiences seems more likely.

        But on many such big generalized questions, I begin by wondering how could it ever be possible to get objective evidence? And whatever method of looking or testing might be tried … how does that method limit or bias the results the testers see? And through what media with what bias do we laypersons get our news of what the testers have seen (hint: popular media likes shock value).

        On the wild animal experience issue we could reality-check the media and Youtube by asking professionals who spend their working hours walking around in forests away from trails, or ask their associated veterinarians, or even ask taxidermists. But what may bias the answers those people give us?

    • Amanda says:

      If it was possible for me to eradicate all the wild animals on Earth instantly by pushing a button with no additional suffering or fear caused by my action of doing so, I probably would. I do think that most animals live lives that have net negative utility. But it’s not possible for me to do this.

      I also think that a lot of people have net negative utility lives, but I would leave it up to them to decide if they’d rather be dead and would be fine with providing a painless method of committing suicide to anyone who made that decision.

      I’m also fine with the idea of giving contraceptives to wild animals, but I worry that it just causes animals to evolve in a direction that makes it more difficult for us to keep track of them and prevent them from suffering. Currently, some cities have programs where they will pay for feral cats to be spayed and neutered. The cats are then released back outside, since feral cats don’t make very good pets. I think this is causing the feral cat population to evolve to be more fearful of humans, because the only ones that are reproducing are the ones who are so scared of humans that they cannot be caught.

  114. Alphaceph says:

    Funding research, or supporting it, into synthetic meat seems like it’s going to be several orders of magnitude more effective than your own personal meat consumption.

    Therefore this whole discussion is mildly retarded.

    • Froolow says:

      Not really – the two options don’t provoke an opportunity cost with respect to each other, so *even if* funding research into synthetic meat was more effective than going vegetarian in terms of cost / animal life saved, it’s not like you couldn’t also switch from chicken to beef and do even better.

      Although as it happens I doubt your marginal contribution to the synthetic meat industry would actually be especially effective – there’s already a lot of R&D money behind trying to discover ways to make realistic muscle tissue from lab vats (both from the meat industry, which is massive, and from the pharmaceutical industry, which is unimaginably massive).

      • Alphaceph says:

        > the two options don’t provoke an opportunity cost with respect to each other

        One would have to put quite a lot of effort into going vegi. Then of course there’s the fixed amount of your own personal happiness you are willing to sacrifice.

        > Although as it happens I doubt your marginal contribution to the synthetic meat industry would actually be especially effective

        Yeah but if you can make synthetic meat come even one day sooner (on average), you decrease the amount of farm animal suffering by probably a 20 billion animal suffering days. Considering chickens only, tradeoff point is going to be roughly

        40 chickens * 50 years of your life = t x 10 billion chickens

        t = (40*50) /10000000000 years = 6 seconds.

        So if you can make synthetic meat arrive 6 seconds earlier on average using the same amount of effort and personal sacrifice as it takes to become vegan, then they’re roughly equal alternatives.

        > there’s already a lot of R&D money behind trying to discover ways to make realistic muscle tissue from lab vats

        I bet that a dedicated effort from effective altruists could, on average, speed up the point of deployment of synthetic meat by a year on average. I’m sure there are bottlenecks that can be eased somewhere in that process.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Reposting from above:

      Growing cells in culture is really quite difficult, particularly stem cells. Even if you have a cellular medium which is similar to their niche you frequently run into issues (e.g. three dimensional structure, cell-cell adhesion) that result in ugly useless cells. Establishing a new cell line, much less growing whole tissues, is a remarkable achievement.

      Now we’re better at this than we ever have been and we’re still getting better at it. But I wouldn’t bet on being able to cost-effectively produce synthetic meat any time soon.

      • Adam says:

        Although probably not cost-effective, either, something at least possible now would be to breed animals for tissue harvest who were on a permanent heroin drip from birth and lived short but completely blissful lives. It might even be possible to disable whatever part of their brain causes them to feel pain or care about anything without disabling the part that allows them to eat food and get fat, though you run into the issue that pain-insensitive people have with accidentally injuring and killing themselves from lack of tactile feedback.

        • Alphaceph says:

          > It might even be possible to disable whatever part of their brain causes them to feel pain

          I think this is probably a good idea to pursue. I bet you that there is basically zero academic research being done on this, and that there is plenty of room for researchers and funding, as well as huge potential gains in reduction of animal suffering.

          >pain-insensitive people have with accidentally injuring and killing themselves from lack of tactile feedback.

          Maybe reduce the pain drastically but don’t totally eliminate it? Maybe build cages that make it hard for animals to injure themselves?

        • Adam says:

          I was figuring restraints. That would make their lives outwardly look shittier than open grazing, but simulated bliss is still bliss.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          I don’t know about you, but opiate-soaked beef sounds more like something you’d buy in a Bangkok alleyway than part of a normal diet. I certainly wouldn’t eat it at least until there had been longitudinal studies on its effects.

          As for animals genetically modified to be pain insensitive or ancephalic, I’m not a farmer but that sounds like they’d take a lot of work to raise. Pain insensitive animals would kill or damage themselves constantly, while I’m pretty sure brainless animals would be completely immobile. It would almost certainly still be easier than culturing meat but also orders of magnitude more expensive than regular meat.

          Plus on a more practical level, opposition to GMOs is still high and these are some pretty sinister-sounding modifications. Getting the FDA and EPA to sign off would probably be a nightmare. And before that, management and the shareholders would likely be cautious of funding a lightning-rod for activists.

          • Adam says:

            The idea would be closer to certified organic produce or 100% pastured beef. There’s no way in hell you could ever feed a planet with it, but you can at least make well-off first-worlders with the ability to overpay for food feel less guilty about it.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Right, but the locavore / free-range / organic food market and the GMO market are mutually exclusive. The whole point is showing how “authentic” and healthy you are.

            Who exactly would be buying this extremely expensive gross-sounding meat in quantities to justify it?

          • Adam says:

            There at least seems to be in this thread some demand for very expensive meat that never suffers. We have to be a representative sample of some reasonable submarket.

        • Psmith says:

          ” It might even be possible to disable whatever part of their brain causes them to feel pain or care about anything without disabling the part that allows them to eat food and get fat, though you run into the issue that pain-insensitive people have with accidentally injuring and killing themselves from lack of tactile feedback.”

          David E. H. Jones (Inventions of Daedalus) wrote a column proposing this very idea. If it were something like the old icepick lobotomies, I can’t imagine it would be terribly expensive.

        • Alex Z says:

          What about psychological suffering? Or is that covered by the same parts of the brain as physical pain?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Alex Z
            What about psychological suffering?

            I was wondering how we might protect anti-vegetarians from psychological suffering caused by knowingly eating a vat-grown steak.*

            But reading up the thread I see that’s not what you meant.

            * of equal quality

      • Alphaceph says:

        > I wouldn’t bet on being able to cost-effectively produce synthetic meat any time soon.

        Irrelevant, it matters how much sooner we can get to that point by putting effort into it.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          What do you think we’re doing now?

          The exact same technology to make cow-less beef would also be able to create replacement organs on demand as well as ideal tissue- / organ-scale models for biological research. It’s the whole reason anyone outside of developmental biology cares about stem cells in the first place.

          The marginal value of a $60 donation in a field with billions of dollars of grants approaches zero. Even “[L]Earning to Give” by becoming a researcher yourself wouldn’t really change anything because it’s such a hot field. You should donate time and money anyway, because scientific research has intrinsic value, but it’s not an “offset” by any reasonable definition.

          • Alphaceph says:

            > Even “[L]Earning to Give” by becoming a researcher yourself wouldn’t really change anything because it’s such a hot field.

            Right, but becoming a vegan also doesn’t really change anything; as demonstrated it’s completely swamped by the variable “date when synthetic meat is achieved”.

            Most people cannot become researchers in that field, but I suspect that if they organised themselves into a nonprofit they could target grant money specifically at synthetic meat production, rather than general advances in biology. This may involve waiting, or for example working on flavouring technology, texturing tech etc.

            In fact it seems that Sergey Brin’s decison to push this with his massive money cannon is what led to the first lab grown burger (that was held back by lack of money, not lack of knowledge – the techniques were all available but academia simply hadn’t bothered to put the time and money into it).

            But reading about it, it looks like there is a lot of work to do and I find it extremely hard to believe that there isn’t something you could do which would help.

    • Linch says:

      Is there a synthetic meat charity that you would suggest? Seriously question here, I don’t think we can stop a significant number of people eating meat any time soon and I would like to be part of the long-term solution.

      Also, consider using less mindkilly language in the future.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        Does it have to be a charity? Find a company and invest in it.

        • Linch says:

          Hmm? Which ones would you suggest?

          My general impression is that companies tend to do a lot of different things, so it’s hard to know if my money is actually useful for my goals.

          Also, a publicly traded company means my marginal contribution is close to meaningless thanks to EMH.

          If it’s not publically traded, then for me to fund startups/privately traded companies with the sums I’m likely to donate, I mean, invest (say 5k) is probably more annoying than anything else.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Why not group together with a bunch of like-minded EAs and start a fund to give research grants for work on tissue cultures?

            A couple hundred people kicking in a few grand or so is a reasonable amount of money. Not anything like government or even alumni money but it could buy a fair amount of equipment and reagents. Scale that up, get some breast-cancer-style fundraising going, you’d have a pretty solid organization.

      • Alphaceph says:

        > would like to be part of the long-term solution.

        But be warned: I am no expert in this field and am just googling around.

        see also

      • Michael vassar says:

        I have been investigating such options with some Boston area EAs. Unfortunately, EA resources are, due tip confusions within the movement, generally less with pursing than VC resources.

  115. moridinamael says:

    I learned recently that livestock are the number one producer of greenhouse gases (ahead of fossil fuel combustion), the number one polluter of oceans (ahead of all other kinds of runoff combined), and the number one consumer of potable water (in the sense that growing their food obviously costs water).

    Does this change the ethical calculus beyond the “suffering” argument?

    (Yes I am a vegetarian and I love fossil fuels but as far as I know the first paragraph is factual.)

    • Adam says:

      Where’d you read it? The EPA says agriculture is 9% of US emissions, behind electricity, transportation, industrial, and commercial/residential as sector sources.

      • Tom Womack says:

        Yes, but that’s the US. There are distressingly large parts of the world which have cows just as methane-producing as American cows, or which burn down forests to plant fodder that will feed Chinese cows, and don’t have huge industrial sectors and residences with a fossil-fuelled air conditioner in every house.

        • SanguineVizier says:

          The EPA estimates global emissions by source as well, using data from the IPCC reports. On data from 2004, electricity/heat generation leads the pack at 26%, with agriculture in fourth place at 14%. The only way to plausibly argue that livestock is number one is to combine the agriculture (14%) and forestry (17%) numbers, combined with the hypothesis that at least 84% of the total is due to livestock. I regard that hypothesis as worth investigating (it passes the laugh test), but I have never seen strong empirical evidence for it.

          • Linch says:

            Mind you, Agriculture was on par emissions-wise with all of transportation, so it’s pretty significant.

          • SanguineVizier says:

            I do not believe anyone seriously claims that agriculture generally, or livestock specifically, is an insignificant source of greenhouse gas emissions. The original claim is that livestock is the number one source, ahead of even fossil fuel combustion. That claim seems dubious at best, based on the data from the IPCC. Electricity/heat generation alone probably beats livestock, and if transportation is included in fossil-fuel combustion, as it should be, then it seems incredibly unlikely that livestock emissions will come out on top.

          • Adam says:

            Yes, to be clear, I don’t doubt the impact of livestock, I just doubt it’s greater than everything else. I’m not even sure how they count agriculture as a sector, either, because if that’s counting transportation of food from farms to everywhere in the world we send food, that isn’t going to change because we send rice and corn instead of beef (which I’m pretty sure is mostly already the case anyway). It’s possible that gets lumped in with transportation generally, though, and they’re only counting cow farts.

          • Linch says:

            IIRC, <20% the emissions from agriculture is due to transportation, so that puts an upper bond on things.

          • Adam says:

            Sounds reasonable. It seems dubious to blame any one good sharing a ship or truck with a bunch of other goods for the transport cost anyway.

      • moridinamael says:

        Source for the above was this documentary:

        edit: link keeps getting marked as spam. it’s a documentary called Cowspiracy.

        Excerpts from the link (go to the link for sources):


        Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation … Transportation exhaust is responsible for 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions.


        Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) water use ranges from 70-140 billion gallons annually … Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually … Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption … Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US.


        Livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land … Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land … Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.

  116. Daniel Armak says:

    Are dairy cows treated better or worse than meat cows? What is the moral calculus of milk products vs meat?

    • Linch says:

      Will MacAskill says that he thinks dairy and meat cows both “good” (net positive) lives. So it’s actually better to be alive than not to born at all, for dairy or meat cows (but not for sows or chickens). I emailed him about this and he told me to read Compassion by the Pound, which I have not gotten around to doing.

      In the meantime (if you’re worried about animal welfare), it’s probably a safe hedge to choose milk products over egg products for your dairy needs.

      • Nita says:

        choose milk products over egg products for your dairy needs

        That’s a good idea in general — after all, eggs are not dairy products and can’t satisfy any dairy needs at all 🙂

      • Adam says:

        What is his quantification of quality of life for each? This statement runs so counter to my experience of dairy farms versus beef pastures and I feel like I’ve seen a lot of each, but granted, even many repeated observations is trumped by statistically valid data.

        • Nita says:

          It’s probably based on Norwood’s estimates in “Compassion by the Pound”, also seen here:

          • Adam says:

            That just pushes the question back a level to why does Bailey Norwood think pasture cattle lead worse lives than dairy cattle. I’ll Google his study, I guess, but they didn’t provide a link and their page just slowed my browser to a crawl and nearly crashed it.

          • Adam says:

            Okay, never mind, it’s a book. Surely this guy published his work in a journal somewhere. He’s a damn agriculture professor. I don’t want to buy his book.

          • Linch says:

            Please tell me what you find. This issue is more than a little troubling for me, but not troubling enough for me to allocate the 50 or so dollars to buy Norwood’s book on Amazon (hopefully your library stocks it)

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Can someone explain to me what the difference between breeder and nonbreeder animals is, and what the ratio between them is?

            If there are ten market chickens for every breeder chicken meat is way less problematic than I thought. If it’s vice verse it’s way more problematic than I thought?

          • Nita says:

            The scales are little more than judgment calls on my part, and when making these judgments I focused on the emotions I think they feel throughout their life.


            So, not exactly the most rigorous method.

          • Linch says:

            Darn. Well, it’s still the best model we have until we get a better one. Think ACE might work towards establishing a “ordered framework for which animals suffer the most” in the near future?

      • Mason says:

        I very much doubt that dairy cattle (or their calves) typically have substantially better lives than hogs, for example, but it’s worth noting that they produce a tremendous quantity of food.

        Julia Galef’s 2011 Scientific American article asserts that a single dairy cow produces ~63,000 lbs of milk in her lifetime – that’s ~17,640,000 calories. Beef cattle only produce ~405,000 calories-worth of food in a lifetime, and broiler (meat) chickens are a mere 3,000 calories/life.

        I think it’s worth considering how long each of these animals lives, though. If some magical animal could produce 30,000,000 calories in a lifetime, but had to be kept in a factory farm for 1,000 years, I’d be very hesitant to support raising it.

    • nil says:

      The big problem with dairy isn’t the cows, it’s the calves. A dairy calf is pretty much the only type of cow that isn’t always pastured, they supply the veal industry, and are weened far earlier than they would like. They’re basically unneeded surplus, and are treated accordingly.

  117. thirqual says:

    Your footnote 5 is doing a lot of work (I would maybe not assign x40 for cow/chicken, but for pig/chicken, yeah, easily). If ones refuses to consider ANY difference in moral values, things get very tricky, especially for considering indirect harms in food production and in basic hygiene/house maintenance.

    • James says:

      Why is a pig worth more than a cow?

      • thirqual says:

        Pigs display a greater intelligence than cows (many caveats apply here), and, even if that is not perfect, that’s the proxy I would use to weight the moral values of various animals (if we did not have to weight also environmental concerns). Even at equal intelligence, one pig gives less meat than one cow (and no usable milk).

  118. stillnotking says:

    I never have much to say on this topic — my vegetarianism is a direct affective preference, not something I talked myself into, or could easily talk myself out of. I don’t eat animals because the idea of killing and devouring a sentient being is repellent.

    How on Earth did you end up eating “almost entirely bread and Quorn” on a vegetarian diet? Do you just not like vegetables?

    • Anonymous says:

      “One reason I’m not a vegetarian is that I really really hate vegetables.”

      • BD Sixsmith says:

        Or rice, pasta, potatoes, fruit, nuts, legumes, oils, confections, alcohol and, if “vegetarian” is not taken to mean “vegan”, eggs and dairy? Perhaps not – it’s not my business – but it’s wrong to think that vegetarians have to eat any more vegetables than meat-eaters.

      • Nita says:

        How on earth does one hate “vegetables” in general? They don’t all have any particular taste or texture in common.

        • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

          By interpreting “vegetables” as “a general assortment of the most consumed and easiest available vegetables”.

        • Devilbunny says:

          I know people who eat almost no plants other than potatoes, wheat, corn, herbs, a few fruits, and the very occasional salad. Hypersensitivity to bitter tastes and a strong set of preferences about mouthfeel seem to be the major issues.

        • Nita says:

          Cooked carrots and beets are sweet. Cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant and onion lose their bitterness when cooked. Squash is practically taste-free. Tomatoes, cucumbers and peas taste good in three different ways. And even pumpkin can be turned into delicious soup.

          I won’t recommend broccoli, Brussels sprouts or arugula to people sensitive to bitter taste, although I do love them myself.

          • Devilbunny says:

            Mouthfeel issues doom essentially all cooked vegetables. Raw squash is a little slimy. Crucifers stink. Etc.

            We’re talking about people who don’t want shredded basil leaves on top of pizza. It’s clearly irrational, but eh, do I want to fight that? Nah.

      • stillnotking says:

        That’s what I get for commenting before coffee.

        So, is Scott’s current diet almost entirely bread and meat? Nosy, err, inquiring minds want to know.

  119. exusqa says:

    “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.”

    The problem is, this wouldn’t surprise me at all. I am comfortable to say that the moral value of one human greatly exceeds that of forty cows. I am also comfortable with claiming that the moral value of one chicken exceeds that of a million mosquitoes. So there are great slopes down the evolutionary tree. It is really hard to quantify this stuff. You may consider the complexity of the nervous system. You may consider the ability to feel pain (and reflect upon it?). You may simply consider the visual similarity to a human being (probably not a good strategy). But at the end of the day I feel that an order of magnitude is not an implausible difference when comparing a bird to a large mammal.

  120. Daniel says:

    “Although in theory wild-caught fish ought to live okay lives and potentially be more ethically acceptable than farm-raised animals…” – this seems totally wrong? If you’re catching fish from the wild, then you aren’t causing their okay life, you’re just cutting it short so that they don’t live more of it, which is presumably bad. Also, the standard arguments about wild animal suffering indicate that their lives aren’t actually good. Therefore, if you were able to painlessly kill wild-caught fish, it might actually be morally acceptable, but for the opposite reason that you state here.

    • Nita says:

      If you’re catching fish from the wild, then you aren’t causing their okay life

      The reasoning is that at least you’re not torturing them prior to killing. I.e., causing a life full of torture is negative, but not causing a life is neutral.

    • Adam says:

      I don’t know if anyone has ever done a comprehensive study of how fish lives typically end, but I’d have to imagine there’s a very high probability they’re going to succumb to predation at some point before a natural death, and that predator happening to be human seems morally neutral.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If everybody ate wild fish, most fish would be happy for 99% of their life. If everyone ate factory farmed fish, it would lead to the construction of many factory farms, and most fish would be miserable for their entire lives.

      • DensityDuck says:

        “so make the farms not suck” is a valid response to that, though, and it still allows for the existence of fish farms (along with replenishment of oceanic biodiversity, which has beneficial effects far beyond what humans put in their mouths.)

      • David Byron says:

        How do you know they are miserable (assuming for the sake of argument they feel anything at all)? If you look at people in prison for example, they have similar issues with crowded conditions and it’s meant to be an unpleasant environment, but few people would say killing prisoners (to end their suffering) is a moral good. People adapt to suffering as they do to any long term stimulus like an annoying sound that you learn to filter out. Are you arguing that chickens or fish or cows would lack this ability?

      • Deiseach says:

        I find it very hard to imagine what makes a farmed salmon or farmed cod “miserable”. Oh no, I cannot swim upstream to spawn? Well, that’s a natural instinct encoded into them which is literally “reproduce and then die”, not a preference or a choice they make. I don’t know if they’re aware enough to feel misery.

        • James says:

          I find it very hard to imagine what makes an enslaved human “miserable”. Oh no, I cannot find a partner to mate and produce children with? Well, that’s a natural instinct encoded into them which is literally “reproduce and then die”, not a preference or a choice they make.

          I’m not necessarily claiming fish can feel miserable, but the way you put it here proves too much, encompassing as it seems to all forms of misery felt by any creature, including humans. I don’t see any meaningful way in which ‘natural instinct encoded into them’ differs from ‘preference’. I don’t know what misery is, if not thwarted natural instincts.

      • Daniel says:

        But there’s an asymmetry here – if you ate some plant-based fish substitute instead of wild fish, you would still have most fish being happy for 99% of their lives (hypothetically assuming that wild fish like their lives), and you would have them be living longer lives which would be even better. If we didn’t eat factory farmed fish but plants instead, we wouldn’t have the fish factory farms at all. It seems like in both cases, you’re doing better to not eat the fish, even if you think eating wild fish looks better than eating factory farmed fish.

    • Jiro says:

      Assuming you’re not catching so many fish that the population can’t adapt, the fact that you caught a fish leaves a hole in the ecosystem which is filled by, on the average, one more fish’s life, or two more fish each living somewhat more, etc. Think of it as QALYs–eating the fish deprives the fish of QALYs but also grants more QALYs to other existing or new fish.

      Of course, this applies to any case of catching wild animals, as long as you don’t catch so many that the population can’t adapt.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I believe that the DNR usually calculates how many animals the ecosystem can support and finds what amount of animals are surplus and likely to starve once food becomes more scarce in the fall and winter. It then allows hunters and fishers to kill the surplus animals, while restricting licenses so more than that cannot be taken.

        This means that, as long as you follow the DNR’s rules and regulations, hunting and fishing is a fantastic ethical bargain. Eating wild game instead of factory-farmed meat means that demand for factory-farmed animals goes down. Plus, it means that wild animals die quickly from gunshot wounds and fishing lines instead of a slow lingering death by starvation.

        If you’re inclined towards hunting and fishing, obey the rules, and are a good enough shot that you don’t cause your kills any undue pain, it’s a fantastic ethical bargain.

        • Steve says:

          This seems to run into the same ‘universability’ problem that Scott was getting at with offsets. More people fishing or hunting is a good thing until a certain threshold, after which it would basically result in either a) the extinction of the animals being hunted/fished or b) a situation in which it’s so difficult/time consuming/otherwise costly to kill an animal in the wild that people switch back to farming again. Hunting/fishing is only a fantastic ethical bargain if most people don’t take advantage of it.

          Edit: to be fair, I guess this is more or less what you’re saying by ‘follow the DNR’s rules’

  121. Epistaxis says:

    The beef-vs-chicken argument is fascinating and I haven’t thought of it that way before.

    But on the other hand, a lot of people reduce their meat intake not because they care about animal suffering (or animal death, in your version), but because they care about the environment. From that point of view, the recommendation is the opposite: eat chicken, not beef.

    Also, am I the first to notice the similarity between paying someone to promote vegetarianism instead of doing it yourself and paying someone to serve in the army instead of yourself? There’s not a lot of moral high ground in “But that other guy is less reluctant to die for our country!”.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      And yet paying taxes and having salaried troops is pretty much paying someone to serve in the army in place of yourself, isn’t it?

      If everyone started with equal amounts of money, allowing people to pay others to serve in the army instead of drafting people randomly would seem like a no-brainer. As it is, it’s unfair to the poor, but then, I didn’t see a lot of billionaires’ kids going off to fight in Vietnam under the current system either.

      • Jiro says:

        In that case, we think that people are required to do their fair share, not required to do all they can. If, instead, people were morally obliged to help the military as much as they could afford, paying for troops would not relieve them of the obligation to serve personally as well. Likewise, if meat is actually murder, you’re obliged to completely avoid murder, so you can’t just commit some murder and pay other people to avoid murder instead.

        (Notice how it doesn’t work with actual murder, either. We would never accept the idea of murder offsets, where you are permitted to murder someone as long as you are willing to pay enough money to increase the utility of other people by more than the loss in utility from the murder. Or at least I’ve never heard of a vegetarian accepting it.)

      • “As it is, it’s unfair to the poor”

        It makes both the poor and the rich better off (ignoring the possibility that it might change the incentives to get into wars). What does “unfair” mean here? I understand the intuition, but I’m not sure one can make logical sense of it.

        You might believe that the existence of rich and poor is itself unfair, but that would be true with or without a system of paid substitutes.

  122. Steve Brecher says:

    Background: 2 3/4 years ago symptoms of stable angina led to an angiogram which led to a diagnosis of severe blockages (but with some good collaterals) and a recommendation of a double bypass. Based on research of the literature for my specific condition (no hyptertension, etc.) I declined surgery in favor of a nutritional approach: whole plant-based foods only (no animal/dairy/fish products) with no added oil. So far, so good: I’m symptom-free and, e.g., climb 100 flights of stairs daily plus the occasional mountain, and do heavy (for me) resistance exercise 3x/week.

    Dietary veganism hasn’t been hard for me to maintain. I regard any animal welfare benefits as a welcome side effect that I get “for free.” Generally I get my calories from starches — potatoes, brown rice, whole grains, beans, etc. — with vegetables, leafy greens, and fruits as “side dishes.” Scott, I’m curious as to why vegetarianism was so difficult for you?

    Afterthought: the answer may be circumstantial. My way of eating could be logistically difficult in a milieu (medical residency?) in which the primary source of food is vending machines or standard-American-diet cafeterias.

    • Garrett says:

      One of my subtle pleasures in life is to eat the least-healthy food possible in hospital cafeterias. I don’t smoke, but I’d be willing to, once, just to smoke hospital-sold cigarettes if they still sold them.

  123. daronson says:

    I only eat beef from cows in the Restaurant at the End of the Galaxy. Seriously though I agree with the sentiment of this post (and respect the hell out of vegetarians), but I also think it’s important to admit that our moral views are a work in progress. They aren’t entirely consistent and often are case-by-case, and I believe that if we tried to force them to be consistent right now then our heads would explode. I personally tend to hedge on the “cows’ lives are over 40 times more valuable” of your footnote and try to eat fewer mammals (especially pigs, which we know are smart).

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Seriously, though, have you ever interacted with a chicken? I have, a little (in decently non-industrial living conditions)

      Me too. We had a flock of about a dozen for a few years, who really were free range: no fences, in several acres of rain forest. We had food out, but they spent most of their time foraging for what the forest produced.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Seriously, though, have you ever interacted with a chicken? I have, a little (in decently non-industrial living conditions)

      Yes, but my comment just got eaten. They weren’t interested in interacting with us, but they showed plenty of personality and good relationships among each other.

      • daronson says:

        Ok, that’s fair. My interaction was with chickens who lived in a cage but were let out periodically (so not truly free range). My personal experience with animals is truly very limited and I should’t base moral judgments on it. I still like mammals better because some vague notion of closeness to humans is worth many moral orders of magnitude in my book. As I said: work in progress.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          I feel less closeness to reptiles, insects, or fish because their behavior is more different to ours. But a creature that K-reproduces, makes a home for its young and feeds, protects, and teaches them, forms a smallish family with internal structure similar to ours, communicates with each other in ways that are easy for us to understand, etc … for me groups with mammals even though oviparous.

  124. James says:

    I’m a vegetarian for moral reasons, and I note with interest that this argument doesn’t really persuade me, in the sense of making me think, “great! I can eat meat again!” I do think the argument is basically sound, and accept it as a justification for someone else eating meat, but for some reason, I don’t feel any desire to take advantage of it myself.

    Maybe I’ve been vegetarian for so long that I’ve just internalised it too fully to want to change it. (I no longer look at a meat dish and think, “mmm, I wish I could be eating that!”) Maybe I’m more Kantian (viz. more universalisability-oriented) than I realise.

    I also feel more open to eating fish than I do to eating meat. I think this is partly because I believe fish is really good for you, but other than that I’m not sure how rational this really is.

    Edited to add: I tried becoming vegan at one point, but found it too difficult. (I eat few enough eggs that I’m not too concerned about their impact, but I was concerned about the dairy I consume.) But I found that I just can’t give up milk in my tea, and on my breakfast cereal, and cheese and yoghurt with meals…. I mention this as a way of admitting that my ethical stance on food is a sort of cobbled-together patchwork of principle and pragmatism.

  125. Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

    >I find that I’m indifferent between beef and chicken as far as taste

    I can accept extremism in thought experiment, engaging neorreactionaries and believing in AI risk. This, though, puts you right up there in the “literally worse than Hitler” camp.

    • James says:

      My favourite thing about this comment is that I can’t tell from which direction Scott is being attacked.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        Just how long have you been a vegetarian for?

        • James says:

          A few years. If I had to guess, I’d say you were probably arguing for beef’s superiority over chicken, but I just found it funny that this is so self-evident to you that you didn’t even feel the need to specify it.

    • Vaniver says:

      I have a poor sense of smell; texture is the primary difference I can perceive between the two of them (I prefer the texture of chicken, plus it’s often cheaper).

  126. Anonymous says:

    As long as a partially meat-based, omnivorous diet is healthier than the alternatives for our species, there will be a demand for nutritional meat. As long as there is demand for consumption of meat, there will be a meat industry. As long as raising livestock is more efficient than culturing meat, yielding lower prices, it will be preferred by producers.

    Figuring out efficient meat culturation is probably safer for everyone than enacting a pan-species retroviral vegetarianization. (Either probably leads to the extinction of some of the current-day livestock species.)

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      That — and in the same direction, developing better meat-substitutes and better tasting vegetarian products, and making traditional vegetarian dishes (Indian, Thai, etc) more available, etc.

      As long as a partially meat-based, omnivorous diet is healthier than the alternatives for our species [….]

      That’s something you might want to examine a little more closely. Meat is a popular source for certain nutrients, but the same ones are common in vegetables too, and we have more different vegetables (generic term including grains, seeds, nuts, whatever) constantly available than our pre-historic ancestors did.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m certain it is possible to construct a healthy diet without any animal products.

        I’m also certain that it is far more convenient and practical to follow a diet inherited from our ancestors, in addition to being something that was tested over time to have worked pretty well. Given the additional effort of keeping an artificial diet, the lack of really-long-term testing of applicability for one’s particular genotype and the morale effects of eating stuff one finds awful, I stand by what I said.

        • Nita says:

          it is far more convenient and practical to follow a diet inherited from our ancestors

          So, for example, anyone of North European ancestry should be eating a lot of turnips, cabbage and offal, supplemented by meat on special occasions.

          Meanwhile, some of those who have roots in India should be vegetarian or even vegan, depending on the religion and caste of their ancestors.

          • Adam says:

            I’d probably be served well sticking to an ancestral North American diet. It’s tough to permanently stop all dairy, and I have tried, but even the lactose free variants and hard cheeses still give me at least a little grief.

          • Anonymous says:

            Pretty much. Certainly seems to have better outcomes in terms of diabeetus and obesity, potentially also longevity.

          • anonymous says:

            “So, for example, anyone of North European ancestry should be eating a lot of turnips, cabbage and offal, supplemented by meat on special occasions.”

            The diet of almost everyone’s ancestors is actually 90% grains and/or milk.

          • Deiseach says:

            I could happily subsist on turnips varied with cabbage and offal with meat/fish betimes, as long as there were enough spuds to go with them.

            Heck, I do happily subsist on meat, turnips and potatoes. My North-Western European genes must be strong, strong as the cliffs and the sea! 🙂

          • Anonymous says:

            Deiseach: I think that the primitive hunter gatherers Nita refers to ate a lot of potato-ish tubers.

            I suspect that the ancient turnips she means are less like modern day turnips, and more like potatoes.

            That said, before modern potatoes were introduced to Ireland, the Irish had been eating mostly grains and milk, for millennia.

          • Nita says:

            Lime Green Anonymous,

            Do you have a source for that 90% claim?

            Modern people also eat grains and dairy. I’m just describing the dietary changes we would have to make.

          • Anonymous says:

            Nita: that 90% was just a rough number off the top of my head, meaning “the great majority”.

            In general, societies that adopted agriculture get the majority, often the near entirety of their calories from grains (or sometimes tubers), except for the (typically lactose-tolerant) few who practice herding either instead of or side by side with grain farming; those get a significant amount of calories from dairy.

            On the spot I can’t link to an authoritative source for that statement, but I’m confident that it’s true.

            (I did not mean to recommend this diet specifically, although I do happen to think that a grain based diet is extremely healthy – modern dairy I don’t think much of).

          • Anonymous says:

            The 90% is probably an exaggeration. Premodern peasants probably consumed a lot of fruits, vegetables and roots also. The lactose intolerant populations probably skipped milk, too.

        • Anonymous says:

          “So, for example, anyone of North European ancestry should be eating a lot of turnips, cabbage and offal, supplemented by meat on special occasions.”

          The diet of almost everyone’s ancestors is actually 90% grains and/or milk.

        • Relative to our ancestors, the modern omnivorous diet is no less artificial than the modern vegan one.

          • Anonymous says:

            Not really. The vegan one was constructed on ethical/moral principles. The ‘eat-what-you-like’ diet is the result of an organic process of people selecting things they like, that they can afford. The prior traditional diets were the same, except in an environment where you had to make your own damn food, and learn from your parents how.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I would love to donate to any scientific groups researching this. Do you know of any?

  127. b_jonas says:

    You say that you’re indifferent between beef and chicken as far as taste, which is definitely not true for me. Still, I’d like to know more about the specifics. Do you also propose abstaining from turkey meat (which I think is much more popular here than among Americans) and other poultry? And even if you don’t care about the taste, wouldn’t eating only beef and pork (plus fish and meat substitutes) make it more difficult to keep a nutritionally good diet, even for an adult?

  128. Linch says:

    So…EA arguments generally make sense to me. Even if I disagree with them a lot, I can at least understand them. But I don’t actually understand ethical offsets. Like, at all.

    Let’s see that you personally contributed to an issue. (say climate change, or factory farming, or adultery , or drunk driving). Call it Cause B.

    Your general donations go to Cause A, but you decide to donate X dollars to Cause B instead/in addition as an offset. How is this rational?

    If you believe that Cause A is more efficient than Cause B, then why don’t you donate to Cause A instead? If you genuinely believe that Cause B creates more utilitons than Cause A, why don’t all of your donations go to Cause B? Why is it relevant that you personally are involved in Cause B?

    • Anderkent says:

      The idea is that you have some amount of money you’re designating for charity, in general, and that you distribute effectively. And then, in addition to that, you’re spending extra on some particular cause to ‘offset’ behaviour you think might be harmful. The purpose of the offset isn’t to be effective, it’s to manage guilt.

    • James says:

      Yeah, I feel this way too, in some vague way.

    • Vamair says:

      Same here, I don’t understand them, at least unless I go all the way to virtue ethics. I’m also not sure exactly how worse an average farm is than the wild, though I’m sure that I’m strongly against the ideas that wild animals should be extinct to prevent their suffering. And if farms ever get to the point of being as good as the wild (less freedom, but shelter, less diseases and parasites and more food) than eating farmed meat would be better than not eating it. Though with ag-gag laws this moment would probably be much further.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree with you, except in a psychological sense.

    • Adam Casey says:

      One way to imagine it is insurance against the least convenient scenario: Suppose you don’t just care about expected values, but want to also make sure you don’t make the universe worse in a case where some-plausible-moral-concern is vastly more important than you think.

      I’d be astonished if animals mattered in ethics. So much so that in EV terms they’re not worth spending money on. But just in case I want to make sure I’m not a monster.

      • Zebram says:

        Monsters are awesome. Anyone remember Cookie monster or Grover monster?

      • Linch says:

        Sure, but that seems like (the probabilistic version of) Hippocracy, which makes sense for doctors and deontologists but is not, AFAICT, the general view of the commentators here. “First, do no harm” is a universalizable principle (a world where all moral agents act this way is likely to be a net positive world), but in the world we live in, many people think they could do a lot better.

        I’m also highly uncertain about the moral worth of animals and my current diet is for Hippocratic reasons as well (with mild signaling/willpower training effects thrown in).
        Although I didn’t internalize how cheap averting animal suffering is until this post…

        One dilemma I’ve had for the last few months is how to reconcile a) the possibility that livestock have moral worth with b)my willingness to fund lifesaving and utility-increasing interventions for humans and c)since Bannerjee and Duflo’s demonstration that on the margins of extreme poverty, increases in income often translate to buying better tasting calories, which typically means more meat.

        However, if I’m reading the numbers on Scott’s post correctly, it’s simply a matter of moral hedging. Calculate the expected number of nonhuman animal lives, possibly weighted by consciousness, that your primary donations will cause, and make enough secondary donations to ACE so that you’ll on net avert animal suffering (this approach implies strong Hypocrasy, which I’m philosophically opposed to, but might well be the best that humans could do).

        At Scott’s upper bound ($4/LY for chickens), we can predict at most 70ly*$4/LY=$280 as an upper bound for the potential moral costs of saving one human life. Not bad at all! So if you’re a speciest humanist but don’t want to cause net animal suffering just in case, you’ll be safe donating putting 7.5% of your donations (round it up to 10% if you wanna) into alleviating animal suffering.

  129. agof says:

    how is it even possible to not like vegetables? not meat is about 80% of daily ratio
    also all packed stuff is still made from veggies, just the worst kind by worst recipes
    like “candy” bars made of corn and soy without even glimpse of sugar or fruits\berries

    • James says:

      I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t feel like I especially love vegetables. I feel like I live more off of grains, pulses, cereal, and various forms of dairy than I do off vegetables per se. I’m just putting this out there to show that you can be a vegetarian without being the kind of person who thinks, say, a roasted aubergine (North Americans, read “eggplant”) plus salad comprises a delicious, well-rounded meal. (Not that I have anything against such people, mind.)

      • nydwracu says:

        I’d call an eggplant and a salad a good meal, if the eggplant is prepared well. The problem is that I’d be hungry an hour or two later and have to eat half a pound of beef.

        I went vegetarian for a few years, just to see if I could. I ended up eating tons of junk in order to stave off hunger.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I literally cannot eat a single vegetable. I can have them if they are chopped up into small enough pieces that I don’t have to chew them or think of them as individual objects, but that’s it. Otherwise I start gagging. This is part of a general intolerance for bitter things (I can’t drink beer either) and crunchy things.

      • nimim. k.m. says:

        Huh, that’s weird. I’m a lousy cook, but that would render most of my usual meat-based recipes quite useless, and those are quite basic Western staple meals.

        What kind of definition of vegetable were using here? Just the “greens” as in salad, or *everything*? Potatoes, nuts, beans? Berries and fruits are usually more sour than bitter, but not crunchy, and can also be very sweet. Or what about tomato-based things that are smashed / cooked into a more or less liquid form without any hint of structure (if tomato counts as ‘structure’ even its natural state) whatsoever? What about cooked vegetables in general, or specifically soups? Mushrooms?

        Does adding salt have any effect?

      • DensityDuck says:

        So ultimately this all boils down to “vegetables are icky”?

        It occurs to me that a better use of your time might be figuring out ways to make vegetables palatable, as opposed to engaging in complex mental gymnastics to justify why everyone else on Earth ought to be vegetarian.

      • anonymous says:

        Hey Scott, the solution is very simple, just toss all vegetables in a blender!

        (and after blending the vegetables, boil the resulting mush in water, and add instant mashed potatoes to make the whole thing dense and caloric. Also maybe olive oil. Delicious.)

        Look, my vegan diet is entirely crunchiness-free.

      • Deiseach says:

        That sounds fascinating – how did your parents stave off vitamin deficiencies when you were a kid and wouldn’t eat up all your greens? 🙂

        Though you remind me of my own family: there’s one “not even honey bees have faces” vegan, one total carnivore who (like yourself probably) in childhood thrived on meat and as few vegetables as my mother could force into him and nowadays gets most of his veggies from spicy as you can get how the hell is that not burning a whole in your stomach? Indian and Chinese takeaway dishes, a vegetarian sibling with a demi-vegetarian son and another who is again a ‘good plain ordinary food and mostly meat’ son and myself, an omnivore or BLOODMOUTH CARNIST who finds it damn hard to eat the “recommended 5 portions of fruit and veg per day” and likes carbs such as bread and potatoes too damn much.

        Hey, how do you manage the “recommended at least 5 (and should be 7) portions of fruit and veg a day”, particularly as we are also warned that fruit is loaded with sugar so we should be mostly snacking on the veggies?

        EDITED: Though I do love turnips (mashed, so that solves the crunchiness problem) with black pepper and butter – yum, yum!

        You can mash carrots and parsnips together, and of course mashed potatoes. Things like cabbage though would be a problem. Broccoli and cauliflower (in Irish cuisine) usually boil down to a mush anyway, but to make them palatable you have to cover them in enough sauce (parsley sauce, bread sauce, onion sauce, whatever white sauce of your choice) so the goodness probably doesn’t count.

        I couldn’t do without onions in cooking, and I suppose you could grate them into mush, but isn’t the effort involved in chopping everything really small/grating it not worth the bother? Or are onions too bitter for you?

        This also makes me think Traditional Irish Cookery should have suited you, since it involves “boil everything into a mush” 🙂

        Cookery: the one subject we’re all insatiably fascinated by!

        • Nornagest says:

          Hey, how do you manage the “recommended at least 5 (and should be 7) portions of fruit and veg a day”, particularly as we are also warned that fruit is loaded with sugar so we should be mostly snacking on the veggies?

          A “portion” in this context is not particularly large. Yes, it’s a confusing guideline.

        • Garrett says:

          I’m pretty much an omnivore. I generally won’t eat slug-like things (snails, oysters) due to texture. However, parsnips are one thing that really cause me to recoil. Even worse than raw broccoli in my mind (and I enjoy cooked broccoli, at least in sauce).

      • Matt says:

        Have you tried soylent? It seems like it would solve both problems and maybe save you some time.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        How do you feel about indian food?

      • Amanda says:

        This is true for me too (well, almost, I can eat corn but that’s not really what people think of when they think of vegetables). I’ve tried multiple times as an adult to eat various types of vegetables and I get the gagging reflex too. I also can’t drink beer (or any alcohol for that matter) or coffee.

        I like some crunchy things, though. Cinnabon cereal is great and it is crunchy, like most cereals. I also like Crunch bars (a type of candy bar, for those who aren’t familiar with them).

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      When I got older I noticed that everyone around me seemed to have gone insane. As a child I avoided vegetables whenever I could. Most other children did too. When the cafeteria served mixed vegetables we threw them out rather than eat them. Corn and green beans were more acceptable, but usually still tossed. I hated it when my parents served vegetables and swore I would never torture my kids like that.

      I’ve remained sane as an adult, but everyone else seems to have been brainwashed. They suddenly started eating vegetables. People who never would have eaten them as a kid eat them all the time. They even talk about forcing their innocent children to eat them! Monsters! Maybe there’s some kind of virus in the vegetables that is taking over their minds! Must eat even less vegetables in order to stay sane!

      • onyomi says:

        There actually is a theory that most vegetables contain very small quantities of things which may be toxic, and/or developmentally toxic. These are harmless or even salutary in most adults, but may be bad for children, pregnant women, and maybe a few rare adults who, for whatever reason, remain sensitive to them. Recently saw a story about how asparagus contains a developmental neurotoxin. Seems to make sense of the fact that it tasted disgusting when I was a kid and tastes fine now. I actually enjoy the bitter flavor of many foods now: green tea, bitter melon, etc. I remember not even liking chocolate as a kid, and now I prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate.

      • Amanda says:

        I can’t believe there’s another person out there who had this experience! I felt the exact same way growing up. All the other kids made rational choices not to eat things that tasted horrible when we were kids, but at some point along the way they started eating and sometimes even enjoying vegetables! How does this happen? Can someone who hated vegetables as a kid and likes them now explain this process? Does it happen suddenly, or do vegetables gradually start tasting better over many years? Or do they still taste bad and you eat them anyway because they’re healthy?

        I had the same experience with coffee and alcohol, by the way. Both tasted disgusting as a kid and still do as an adult, but other adults seem to love both of them now and I can’t understand why (aside from the fact that drunkenness seems to be an enjoyable experience for some people and coffee helps keep them awake).

        Also, @Ghatanathoah, I also think it’s painful to see parents forcing their kids to eat things that taste disgusting. I really hate seeing this and it gives me a visceral negative empathetic reaction to the kids’ obvious disgust. I won’t ever do anything like this to my kids. I would rather not reproduce at all than put children through this.

        • Nita says:

          I’ve never hated vegetables* that much, but I can attest that some bitter tastes have gradually become more pleasant to me, and sweet tastes have become less so (things can be too sweet now!).

          Bitter cucumbers are still unpalatable.

          Beer, coffee and dry wine still taste bad, but I can drink them if necessary.

          Also, liver is delicious now, and I no longer prefer eating each ingredient of a dish separately.

          * I was born in the Soviet Union, so my childhood experience of vegetables doesn’t include broccoli, Brussels sprouts or asparagus, but does include carrots, beets, bell peppers and cauliflower.

          • Amanda says:

            Very interesting! So some adults really do experience a change in taste where bitterness doesn’t bother them as much. This never happened to me.

            You said you grew up with carrots, beets, bell peppers, and cauliflower available to you. Did you like them as a kid, or did you dislike them and like them now? I am actually quite fascinated by taste differences between kids and adults, since it’s one of those things that seems to be really common and happens to everyone, except for those rare people like me.

            For the record, out of the four vegetables mentioned, carrots are the least disgusting to me, but I still wouldn’t eat them unless I absolutely had to due to imminent starvation.

            Also, you can eat foods mixed together now? That’s actually pretty amazing to me. I’ve never gotten over my desire to keep foods separate, with a few very specific exceptions (I like mixing chicken that’s been marinated in Italian dressing with plain white rice, for example).

          • Nita says:

            Did you like them as a kid, or did you dislike them and like them now?

            I think the biggest change happened with Hungarian white peppers. They aren’t sweet or hot, just mildly bitter, and usually stuffed with meat and rice. As a kid, I wondered why anyone would want to eat them, but now they seem to complement the taste of meat perfectly.

            Pickled olives also have gone from “bad” to “good”, and sweet bell peppers have gone from “sometimes OK” to “always good”, but fresh carrots have always been delicious.

            We don’t really have a “kids hate vegetables” meme around here. It’s more like “most kids hate boiled carrots and onions, and some young kids are picky”. On the other hand, parents forcing their kids to eat some particular food doesn’t seem very common, either.

            As for mixed foods, I remember lots of first-graders, including myself, disliking stew (something like this?), and now it’s one of my favourites.

        • alexp says:

          I’m still a picky eater. I still refuse to eat mushrooms or most shellfish or bean sprouts, but I’m much less picky than I was a child.

          I think part of it was just growing older and learning to like bitter tastes.

          I also had a short outdoorsy period where I’d be hungry enough at the end of a long hike to eat anything. There was also a fraternity pledge period where I endured all sorts of unpleasant tastes. No not the ones your thinking of, but college seniors and juniors can be quite creative creating terrible tastes with legitimate foodstuffs.

          Those two factors I’m not sure can be replicated.

          • onyomi says:

            Besides the “bitter stuff has mildly toxic things in it which might be bad for a child but are harmless to an adult” theory, I’ve also heard the idea that preference for most or all flavors other than sweet is learned, whereas a taste for sweet is innate. Of course, the first thing most people consume is mother’s milk, and I guess that’s probably not very sweet, but once they start eating food, probably the most universally unoffensive things are closer to pure glycogen than anything else, aka honey, pixie sticks, etc. Seems like no one has to “learn” to like those things, whereas in Korea virtually everyone likes kimchi, but in America you might find a majority who aren’t used to eating it would not.

            This is all probably related to the “omnivore’s dilemma” whence our sense of disgust and much also probably originate: with the freedom to eat a wide variety of food comes the danger of poisoning yourself. Something like honey is pretty unlikely to poison you, whereas some random bitter plant has a higher probability of doing so: hence it makes sense it would take more getting used to.

          • Nita says:

            Human milk is quite sweet, but giving honey to little babies is a bad idea — it contains a lot of things and can cause an allergic reaction.

    • simon says:

      Hating all vegetables? Um, easily?

  130. How does environmentalism factor into this calculus?

    I’ve adopted exactly the opposite of the “prefer beef to chicken” advice and mostly eat chicken, primarily because they are much less environme