Is there a standard discussion of vegetarianism/veganism?

post by Sherrinford · 2018-12-30T20:22:33.330Z · LW · GW · 17 comments

This is a question post.

I am searching for a concise text that presents and optimally also discusses reasons for a vegetarian/vegan diet, including environmental and climate effects, health, but of course also ethics, and there are some ethical points I would be particularly interested in like "can you rank animals by how bad eating them is?", "is it more ethical to eat wild animals because they have a good life before dying?", "the ethics of offsetting" (the kind discussed in Optimally, this would be a kind of non-partisan text, but I guess for this topic this is hard to find because if someone writes about it, s/he usually explains her/his own reasons.


answer by cumbong420 · 2019-01-03T22:49:47.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suggest you read Peter Singer's book, "Animal Ethics", which goes into great detail on the ethics of consuming animal products within the framework of utilitarianism. Singer is often thought of as the father of veg*ism, so he's a great place to start. I don't know a great deal on the topics of environmental impact or health, but I think I can start some discussion on your questions.

"Can you rank animals by how bad eating them is?"

That depends on your personal views on the sanctity of life or lack thereof. This is a very easy question for me to answer - of course, for humans are animals and I place the value of their lives over others. Similarly I care much more for a pig than I do for an ant, but not so much that I disregard the ant entirely. It makes perfect sense to have a scale for which animals' lives have more worth than others, but I'm wary to do so in fear of being dishonest, since there's no way I'd put myself below top.

"Is it more ethical to eat wild animals because they have a good life before dying?"

I suppose, but it doesn't warrant discussion. This is merely a question of whether the life of an animal in its natural habitat is better than one on a factory farm with killing and eating them as a given. The answer there is obvious and I just reject the idea that killing and eating is necessary to begin with. I also believe a wild hunted human would be a more ethical meal than a factory farmed one, but I believe neither are acceptable. My views on factory farm and wild hunted animal flesh are roughly analogous to my ones on human flesh.

"The ethics of offsetting" (can I offset myself into ethically eating meat?)

The author of the article in question says here that they made some mistakes -

(12/30/16) In Vegetarianism For Meat-Eaters, part 2 suggested that donating to animal welfare charities could save 3 – 11 animal lives per dollar. Based on critiques like those in this essay, I now think those numbers are heavily exaggerated, maybe by several orders of magnitude. I don’t know what the right numbers are or whether the point is still somewhat valid.

That aside, I do not. In order to be ethical agents, we are obligated to do no harm. Regardless of what good you do in the world, you cannot act ethically and also intentionally do harm. Assuming imprisoning and killing animals is harmful, you cannot engage in it and consider yourself ethical in your treatment of animals if you believe that factory farming or meat at all is wrong.

These are of course my opinions, feel free to disagree with them or let me know with any questions or problems you spot.

comment by Sherrinford · 2019-01-08T12:23:38.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"I suggest you read Peter Singer's book, "Animal Ethics", which goes into great detail on the ethics of consuming animal products within the framework of utilitarianism."

I guess you mean either "Animal Liberation" and "Practical Ethics"?


comment by Sherrinford · 2019-01-08T12:37:58.148Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find your answer to the question about wild animals very interesting. However, I am unsure what it implies. What would be the preferences of a deer itself if it could think of its own future as humans do? It would surely want to continue living in its natural habit, but would it want to die the way it can expect to do so in nature? Would it prefer that kind of death to being shot? (Or do you think none of these questions has ethical significance?) And actually, I don't know whether there is a literature on the ethics of cannibalism, but I would guess that there are reasons of biological and cultural evolution why this does not exist. So I assume people would find the idea disgusting, and many vegetarians find the idea of eating animals disgusting, but this does not really say much about (normative) ethics, or does it?

Replies from: cumbong420
comment by cumbong420 · 2019-01-09T21:53:31.030Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The preferences of a deer as far as I can reasonably assume are probably A: avoid death, B: avoid pain, and C: seek pleasure. Deer might (and probably do) have more complicated understandings of the world, but in the absence of a deer psychic I can't really base anything off that assumption. I think it's safe to assume a deer would prefer not to be shot by a hunter in the vast majority of situations. Furthermore, it should be noted that younger animals are often hunted rather than ones approaching death, so the difference between getting killed by a hunter or dying as they would in their natural habitat is also a difference between a huge part of their lifespan. It's reasonable to assume deer would prefer to extend their lifespan in most cases. I think these questions have ethical significance, but in the context of discussing whether it's acceptable to kill and eat animals, I think it distracts from the primary disagreements. Sure, death by bullet is probably preferable to death in nature, but at no particular point should we assume that a healthy, young deer would like to be shot. Similarly, I would prefer to die by a bullet than in a hospital bed, but at no particular point as a healthy person would I like someone to shoot me.

I don't consider cannibalism to be wrong. I don't practice it and it sort of ekes me out, but I have no problem with ritual or cultural cannibalism so long as no sacrifice is made. In this particular way, my views on cannibalism are analogous to my ones on carnism. I have no problem with someone eating their pet dog, for example, after they die. If that person were to start slaughtering dogs to satiate his tastes, however, I'd have an objection. When comparing eating meat to eating humans, I'll almost always imply that a human is being killed against their will in the process.

comment by Sherrinford · 2019-08-09T09:52:21.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A related question came to my mind, but for the moment I will just add it to this thread and see whether people find it. So:

What is the best steelmanned case for eating animals you know, in particular the best ethical argument?

Replies from: Richard_Kennaway, habryka4
comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2019-08-09T10:54:14.732Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are made of atoms I want to use for something else.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-08-09T22:32:53.509Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The cost of doing so has an effect on productivity (due to nutritional effects, but also effects on attention and general hassle, as well as coordination costs), and using a fraction of that additional productivity to help animals results in a much larger reduction in net animal suffering (because of the abundance of easy opportunities for helping animals, due to the horrible state of animal lives).

Replies from: matthew-barnett
comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2019-08-09T22:51:02.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The cost of doing so has an effect on productivity (due to nutritional effects, but also effects on attention and general hassle, as well as coordination costs)

I agree. When I gave up animal products it caused me to constantly think about it, especially when I was with others. It's an unnecessary timesink in that sense. I can list other costs too:

1. There's still a stigma to being vegan, so people are less likely to want to be friends with you, and your networking skills will suffer.

2. You won't be invited places sometimes due to the lack of vegan options and the fact that people who know you wouldn't want you to feel left out.

3. It might make you become less consequentialist and more deontological. I have found that veganism is much more focused on a "Thou shall not cause intentional harm to animals" than something which I am much more likely to reflectively endorse, like "Thou shall include the suffering and happiness of animals in one's plans to make the world better."

Replies from: Lanrian
comment by Lanrian · 2019-08-10T06:11:52.837Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
There's still a stigma to being vegan, so people are less likely to want to be friends with you, and your networking skills will suffer.

Note that the opposite can also be true, especially if your plan to improve the world involves engaging with the animal rights community, or other people who care about animals.

answer by deluks917 · 2019-01-03T17:24:38.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are some standard answers to "an you rank animals by how bad eating them is?". Here is Brian Tomasik's ranking. The article goes into considerable detail and has a useful results table: How Much Direct Suffering is Caused by Different Animal Foods . Various people have proposed alternative ways to count, for example suffering/gram_protein, but this is the standard starting point.

comment by Sherrinford · 2019-01-03T18:53:52.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very interesting, though I don't fully understand it. For instance, extending the lifetime in the calculator always increases total suffering, which does not seem to make much sense to me.

Replies from: cumbong420
comment by cumbong420 · 2019-01-03T22:51:04.518Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The longer the animal lives, the longer it must spend on a factory farm. Extended lifespan ceases to be a positive thing when annihilation becomes preferable.

Replies from: Sherrinford
comment by Sherrinford · 2019-01-08T12:19:14.189Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also thought this may be the reason, but so we have a calculator that is only applicable to animals of which we judge that their life has negative value to themselves.

Replies from: cumbong420
comment by cumbong420 · 2019-01-10T02:12:52.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Since the calculator specifies "animal foods", that may be reasonable. Hunted foods are a distinct argument, but when talking about animal products in the general sense, I think it's safe to refer to the common case, which is a factory farm. An argument could be made that the lives of animals on factory farms have negative value to themselves. On the other hand, calculating suffering seems sort of silly since there's no way to measure it or many of the other categories on the calculator. I think that website's convincing but I'm not sure it proves anything or presents a real argument.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2018-12-31T18:21:15.968Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you haven't already you might also ask this question on the EA forum. It seems likely to me that it's more likely someone with a good answer to this would see this question over there.

Sadly I don't know of such a resource myself, but it seems like something that would be really useful. Most things giving arguments for veg*ism tend to lean at some point on a shared moral intuition that hurting the environment, killing animals, or animal suffering is bad, but it sounds like you want something more. For what it's worth, though, you can find stuff about all those questions spread around in different sources.

Replies from: Sherrinford
comment by Sherrinford · 2019-01-08T12:39:55.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the suggestion, I will consider it.

Moral intuition is often helpful, but not quite what I am searching for.

comment by cumbong420 · 2019-01-09T21:43:07.848Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah my bad, fast typing forgot the right name. Animal Liberation is book which obviously specifically covers animal ethics while Practical Ethics has a wider breadth. I'd suggest Animal Liberation for your purposes