Why I’m Not Vegan

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While many peo­ple in the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment are ve­gan, I’m not, and I wanted to write some about why. The short an­swer is what while I’m on board with the gen­eral idea of mak­ing sac­ri­fices to help oth­ers I think ve­g­anism doesn’t rep­re­sent a very good trade­off, and I think we should put our al­tru­is­tic efforts el­se­where.

There are many rea­sons peo­ple de­cide to eat ve­gan food, from ethics to taste to health, and I’m just in­ter­ested in the eth­i­cal per­spec­tive. As a con­se­quen­tial­ist, the way I see this is, how would the world be differ­ent if I stopped eat­ing an­i­mals and an­i­mal prod­ucts?

One fac­tor is that I wouldn’t be buy­ing an­i­mal prod­ucts any­more, which would re­duce the de­mand for an­i­mals, and cor­re­spond­ingly the amount sup­plied. Elas­tic­ity means that if I de­crease by buy­ing by one unit I ex­pect pro­duc­tion to fall by less than one unit, but I’m go­ing to ig­nore that here to be on the safe side. Peter Hur­ford gives a very rough set of num­bers for how many con­tin­u­ously liv­ing an­i­mals are re­quired to sup­port a stan­dard Amer­i­can diet and gets:

  • 18 of a cow

  • 18 of a pig

  • 3 chickens

  • 3 fish

For ex­am­ple, a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can con­sumes about a quar­ter of a pig per year, and these pigs live about six months, so that’s 18 of a pig on an on­go­ing ba­sis. I haven’t checked his num­bers in de­tail, but there are 78M pigs and 327M peo­ple in the US, so one pig for ev­ery four peo­ple, and once you con­sider that we ex­port a lot of pork this seems in the right range.

Now, I don’t think an­i­mals mat­ter as much as hu­mans. I think there’s a very large chance they don’t mat­ter at all, and that there’s just no one in­side to suffer, but to be safe I’ll as­sume they do. If an­i­mals do mat­ter, I think they still mat­ter sub­stan­tially less than hu­mans, so if we’re go­ing to com­pare our al­tru­is­tic op­tions we need a rough ex­change rate be­tween an­i­mal and hu­man ex­pe­rience. Con­di­tional on an­i­mals mat­ter­ing, avert­ing how many an­i­mal-years on a fac­tory farm do I see as be­ing about as good as giv­ing a hu­man an­other year of life?

  • Pigs: about 100. Con­di­tions for pigs are very bad, though I still think hu­mans mat­ter a lot more.

  • Chick­ens: about 1,000. They prob­a­bly mat­ter much less than pigs.

  • Cows: about 10,000. They prob­a­bly mat­ter about the same as pigs, but their con­di­tions are far bet­ter.

  • Fish: about 100,000. They mat­ter much less than chick­ens.

Th­ese are very rough, and this is the main place where I think I differ from most eth­i­cal ve­g­ans: I think hu­mans mat­ter much more than these an­i­mals. Your own views may also be differ­ent!

Over­all this has, to my own per­sonal best guess, giv­ing a per­son an­other year of life be­ing more valuable than at least 230 Amer­i­cans go­ing ve­gan for a year.

The last time I wrote about this I used $100 as how much it costs to give some­one an ex­tra year of life through a dona­tion to GiveWell’s top char­i­ties, and while I haven’t looked into it again that still seems about right. I think it’s likely that you can do much bet­ter than this through dona­tions aimed at re­duc­ing the risk of hu­man ex­tinc­tion, but is a good figure for com­par­i­son. This means I’d rather see some­one donate $43 to GiveWell’s top char­i­ties than see 100 peo­ple go ve­gan for a year.

Since I get much more than $0.43 of en­joy­ment out of a year’s worth of eat­ing an­i­mal prod­ucts, ve­g­anism looks like a re­ally bad al­tru­is­tic trade­off to me.

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