The Meat Eater Problem: Developing an EA Response

One is­sue that Effec­tive Altru­ism has not fully de­vel­oped a co­her­ent re­sponse to con­cerns the “meat eater prob­lem”: this is the con­cern that sav­ing hu­man life in­creases an­i­mal suffer­ing as meat con­sump­tion goes up. This ar­gu­ment is usu­ally called the “poor meat eater prob­lem,” but I think this term is not quite ac­cu­rate, given that the con­cern is stronger in the de­vel­oped world, so I’m go­ing to call it the “meat eater prob­lem.” Many GiveWell char­ity recom­men­da­tions, par­tic­u­larly the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion, could be af­fected by this con­sid­er­a­tion – if sav­ing hu­man lives means in­creas­ing suffer­ing for a large num­ber of an­i­mals kil­led for meat con­sump­tion, should we sup­port hu­man health in­ter­ven­tions at all?

I think we still should, but the meat eater prob­lem also in­creases my con­fi­dence that Effec­tive Altru­ism as a whole is prob­a­bly not sup­port­ing effec­tive an­i­mal or­ga­ni­za­tions enough. In this post, I agree that sav­ing hu­man lives prob­a­bly in­creases meat con­sump­tion. How­ever, I ar­gue that 1) this may not be bad, be­cause some sys­tems of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture give an­i­mals net-pos­i­tive lives, 2) the size of this prob­lem might be smaller than we ex­pect, and 3) even if these ar­gu­ments are wrong, we can hedge our bets by giv­ing a more sub­stan­tial por­tion of our over­all giv­ing to effec­tive an­i­mal char­i­ties. I con­clude with four broader the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal points for Effec­tive Altru­ists. I pre­sent these ar­gu­ments with con­sid­er­able un­cer­tainty and would greatly ap­pre­ci­ate com­ments of where I may be wrong.

The meat eater prob­lem is log­i­cally plau­si­ble, but it might not be eth­i­cally bad

The ba­sic logic that al­low­ing more hu­mans to ex­ist—whether by sav­ing lives or in­creas­ing fer­til­ity—will raise meat con­sump­tion is es­sen­tially cor­rect. I see lit­tle rea­son to doubt that in­creas­ing the num­ber of hu­mans al­ive over at least the next decade or so will also in­crease an­i­mal con­sump­tion, and what limited ev­i­dence we have seems to in­di­cate that this is the case. How­ever, the ar­gu­ment that this is eth­i­cally bad – or at least worse than the benefit of sav­ing hu­man life – rests on some shaky eth­i­cal as­sump­tions that I want to high­light.

Most im­por­tantly, the meat eater prob­lem is only a prob­lem if we as­sume that an­i­mals kil­led for meat live net-nega­tive lives. I re­cently read Com­pas­sion by the Pound and was struck by the im­por­tance of the ar­gu­ment that we should try to judge whether lives are worth liv­ing on a −10 – 10 scale – this al­lows us to en­sure we’re cre­at­ing more en­joy­ment in the world than suffer­ing. Although it’s difficult to tell how much suffer­ing or en­joy­ment an­i­mals get out of their lives, the au­thors make one of the most com­pre­hen­sive, sys­tem­atic, and rigor­ous at­tempt at an­swer­ing this ques­tion that I’m aware of to date.

The figure be­low, taken from their book (pg. 229), pre­sents an as­sess­ment from one of book’s au­thors about the qual­ity of an­i­mal lives un­der some fac­tory farm con­di­tions – it’s im­por­tant that these num­bers rep­re­sent one au­thor’s opinion and are highly de­pen­dent on as­sump­tions about what an­i­mals need to en­joy their lives. I would love to see other re­searchers repli­cate these as­sess­ments based on what they know, but at least ac­cord­ing to my eth­i­cal frame­work, I have no rea­son to be­lieve that it is im­pos­si­ble for an­i­mal agri­cul­ture to cre­ate net-pos­i­tive lives for an­i­mals. Cer­tainly, the level of cru­elty to­wards chick­ens, in par­tic­u­lar, is shock­ing, rep­re­sent­ing one of the worst ex­am­ples of suffer­ing on the planet to­day. I’ve been very im­pressed by The Hu­mane League’s string of vic­to­ries in con­vinc­ing Nes­tle, Sodexo, Star­bucks, and a host of other com­pa­nies to adopt cage-free egg poli­cies – these types of welfare re­forms are hugely benefi­cial and are a big rea­son I donate to The Hu­mane League.

The ar­gu­ment pre­sented in Com­pas­sion by the Pound leads me to think, at the very least, that cer­tain sys­tems of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture might offer net-pos­i­tive lives for the an­i­mals within them, albeit nowhere near what they de­serve, and that out­reach strate­gies that re­duce de­mand for meat might not nec­es­sar­ily be net-pos­i­tive. If we as­sume that the au­thor’s welfare num­bers are cor­rect for a brief mo­ment, it is en­tirely pos­si­ble that re­duc­ing de­mand for meat would ac­tu­ally pre­vent some an­i­mals from be­ing al­ive when they would’ve benefited from more en­joy­ment than suffer­ing over­all.

Even though the meat eater prob­lem is plau­si­ble, it’s prob­a­bly smaller than most argue

It also strikes me as im­por­tant that an­i­mal con­sump­tion in the de­vel­op­ing world is much lower than in the United States and a much lower per­centage of it comes from fac­tory farms. Yes, fac­tory farms are quickly grow­ing in the de­vel­op­ing world. How­ever, it’s likely that peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world will eat not eat as much meat as peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world for quite some time and that some frac­tion of the meat they do eat will not come from fac­tory farms.

I think it’s prob­a­bly true that the size of the meat eater prob­lem will grow over the next cen­tury, but I have con­sid­er­able un­cer­tainty that this should in­fluence our de­ci­sion-mak­ing on hu­man health in­ter­ven­tions. For ex­am­ple, health in­ter­ven­tions that save lives, like bed nets, may lower hu­man fer­til­ity in the long run, re­sult­ing in lower meat con­sump­tion. It’s also plau­si­ble that in­ter­ven­tions that raise in­comes, like de­worm­ing, have a lower im­pact on meat con­sump­tion be­cause they don’t raise the over­all num­ber of hu­mans that would be eat­ing meat over their en­tire life­time. My point here is to illus­trate that there are sub­stan­tial un­cer­tain­ties all around that don’t al­low us to claim that the meat eater prob­lem ac­tu­ally is a prob­lem or that sav­ing lives in the de­vel­op­ing world ac­tu­ally wors­ens it.

I would en­courage any­one here to statis­ti­cally an­a­lyze what kind of im­pact de­clin­ing child mor­tal­ity in the de­vel­op­ing world will even­tu­ally have on meat con­sump­tion, as­sum­ing that fac­tory farms are wide­spread in the next 10-50 years. I can’t say much here with­out con­sid­er­able un­cer­tainty, but as GiveWell ar­gues, we shouldn’t rely ex­ten­sively on ar­gu­ments that re­quire ex­ten­sive causal chains to be true. In this case, for sav­ing lives in the de­vel­op­ing world to be eth­i­cally bad, you would need to prove that over the next sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, 1) peo­ple in coun­tries with GiveWell-sup­ported char­i­ties will be eat­ing some high per­centage of fac­tory farmed meat, 2) fac­tory farmed meat will pro­duce net nega­tive util­ity for an­i­mals, and that the moral weight of the harm to an­i­mals is greater than the hu­mans saved in the first place.

Even if I’m wrong about the meat eater prob­lem, we can im­prove the chances we’ll solve it with in­vest­ments in an­i­mal or­ga­ni­za­tions today

Effec­tive Altru­ism is very right to place im­por­tance on think­ing at the mar­gins. How­ever, given an ar­gu­ment like the meat eater prob­lem that de­pends on pro­jec­tions about the fu­ture, I think it’s pos­si­ble that sys­temic fac­tors and larger con­sid­er­a­tions might trump our in­di­vi­d­ual in­fluence. As such, I think we should put rea­son­able prob­a­bil­ity (ex. at least 10-20%) that we’ll de­velop wide­spread meat al­ter­na­tives and/​or have a high num­ber of suc­cess­ful farm an­i­mal welfare cam­paigns that in­fluence meat con­sump­tion in the de­vel­op­ing world.

It’s cer­tainly un­likely that we should de­pend on these is­sues go­ing our way, but we do have some di­rect power over them: donat­ing to effec­tive an­i­mal char­i­ties that work in the de­vel­op­ing world, like Mercy for An­i­mals, as well as or­ga­ni­za­tions cre­at­ing meat al­ter­na­tives, like New Har­vest, are very high-im­pact ac­tions that EAs should con­sider.

In the meat eater de­bate, ul­ti­mately, my men­tal model for the two ma­jor path­ways EA could fol­low is this: 1) ac­cept what strikes me as an un­likely string of causal chains and stop giv­ing to all effec­tive hu­man char­i­ties or 2) con­tinue sup­port­ing effec­tive hu­man char­i­ties and put a sub­stan­tial por­tion of our char­i­ta­ble giv­ing in or­der to min­i­mize the eth­i­cal risk that the meat eater prob­lem is true and harm­ful. The lat­ter op­tion makes sense, given the ar­gu­ment I’ve out­lined above, and takes into ac­count the pos­si­bil­ity that I’m wrong about ev­ery­thing by boost­ing the prob­a­bil­ity that we won’t have wide­spread fac­tory farm­ing in the com­ing decades.


The most ob­vi­ous coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is that the welfare es­ti­mates in Com­pas­sion by the Pound might be wrong and that most or all an­i­mals in fac­tory farm­ing en­dure net-nega­tive lives. That’s en­tirely pos­si­ble, as Brian To­masik be­lieves is the case. In all hon­esty, I sim­ply don’t know enough to say at this point in my growth as an Effec­tive Altru­ist in­ter­ested in an­i­mal ac­tivism. My very loose im­pres­sion is that fac­tory farm­ing as a whole is cur­rently ex­tremely net-nega­tive, con­sid­er­ing that so much of it con­sists of chick­ens in bat­tery cages. I’m less sure of other sys­tems of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture where welfare stan­dards are higher (ex. Europe and the UK) and where an­i­mal agri­cul­ture sys­tems are less com­mer­cial­ized, as in many parts of the de­vel­op­ing world.

Fel­low Effec­tive Altru­ists might also ar­gue that we should sim­ply give to wher­ever has the high­est ex­pected util­ity, rather than stretch our dona­tions across causes or or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the­ory, I agree with this ap­proach. How­ever, I strug­gle to see how we can mea­sure the im­pact of our dona­tions against one an­other to the de­gree re­quired to make this judg­ment with any de­gree of con­fi­dence, es­pe­cially in light of un­cer­tain­ties like the meat eater prob­lem and far fu­ture con­cerns. For ex­am­ple, would you be able to say with greater than 80-90% con­fi­dence that a dona­tion to the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion has greater ex­pected value than to the Hu­mane League or Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute?

A more prac­ti­cally sound ap­proach, to me, seems to be to con­sider where the dis­tri­bu­tion of dona­tions in the Effec­tive Altru­ist move­ment gen­er­ally falls and al­lo­cate fund­ing as “bets” ac­cord­ing to how much an or­ga­ni­za­tion could use money at the mar­gins and its ex­pected value. Un­der this line of think­ing, I be­lieve we may be un­der-pri­ori­tiz­ing an­i­mal or­ga­ni­za­tions, far fu­ture re­search, and meta-or­ga­ni­za­tions like Giv­ing What We Can.

Some smart philoso­pher will prob­a­bly point out, “but Scott, doesn’t your ar­gu­ment as­sume that we should fa­vor to­tal util­i­tar­i­anism over av­er­age util­i­tar­i­anism?” Per­haps. This is a philo­soph­i­cal de­bate that has not ap­pealed to me very much be­cause it strikes me as forc­ing us into mak­ing an ar­bi­trary dis­tinc­tion. I’ve gen­er­ally felt that we shouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily op­ti­mize for one over the other – they’re both good goals. I’m open to be­ing con­vinced oth­er­wise.

Fi­nal Implications

If you’ve fol­lowed along for this long, I’d like to out­line sev­eral pos­si­bil­ities for what I think the meat eater prob­lem should teach us about how to give effec­tively:

1) Fam­ily plan­ning/​abor­tion may be hu­man health in­ter­ven­tions worth con­sid­er­ing more closely

One im­por­tant ar­gu­ment is that in­ter­ven­tions like con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion – par­tic­u­larly in coun­tries with high meat con­sump­tion like the United States – may ac­tu­ally be cost-effec­tive at re­duc­ing an­i­mal suffer­ing and im­prov­ing women’s lives. Although the pos­si­bil­ity that we de­velop meat al­ter­na­tives may re­duce the po­ten­tial benefit of this ar­gu­ment, it’s cer­tainly worth con­sid­er­ing. Even though the cost of con­tra­cep­tive in­ter­ven­tions in the de­vel­oped world are sig­nifi­cantly higher than in coun­tries like In­dia, per­haps the ad­di­tional an­i­mal suffer­ing pre­vented makes these in­ter­ven­tions more effec­tive than we pre­vi­ously thought.

2) “Lives saved” prob­a­bly isn’t a good sin­gle most im­por­tant met­ric, con­sid­er­ing that its worth hinges so heav­ily on whether some­one’s life is net good

This ar­gu­ment has been con­sid­er­ably dis­cussed, but once again, I find it true. Whether a life is worth sav­ing through health in­ter­ven­tions de­pends on whether it is worth liv­ing. Per­haps we should al­lo­cate more of our char­i­ta­ble dol­lars in hu­man char­i­ties to ex­plicit welfare im­prove­ments—I’m not sure, but think this strain of re­search re­gard­ing whether the global poor con­sider their lives net-pos­i­tive is one worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing. By the same to­ken, this is an ex­tremely im­por­tant ques­tion for an­i­mal char­i­ties to con­sider as they weigh var­i­ous fac­tory farm­ing in­ter­ven­tions.

3) Let’s work more in India

Con­sid­er­ing 40% of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion is veg­e­tar­ian, but has a sig­nifi­cant frac­tion of dis­ease bur­den and poverty wor­ld­wide, this coun­try rep­re­sents a won­der­ful place for Effec­tive Altru­ists to work.

4) EA could prob­a­bly stand to give a much higher pro­por­tion of its money to an­i­mal char­i­ties. If we want to elimi­nate fac­tory farm­ing globally, this will re­quire much more re­sources.

The sheer num­ber of an­i­mals kil­led in fac­tory farm­ing gives enor­mous moral im­por­tance to re­duc­ing an­i­mal suffer­ing. Har­ish Sethu’s pre­sen­ta­tions make this very clear. How­ever, effec­tive an­i­mal char­i­ties gen­er­ally have minis­cule bud­gets, with An­i­mal Equal­ity at just $2.5 mil­lion in ex­penses in 2014 – a frac­tion of the nearly $100 mil­lion in dona­tions at­tributed to GiveWell this past year. I haven’t em­piri­cally as­sessed what per­centage of EA dol­lars should go to an­i­mal char­i­ties, but on the face of it, we’re way too hu­man-cen­tered. Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject’s re­cent grant to The Hu­mane League is a great step in that di­rec­tion.

Many thanks to Brian To­masik and Peter Hur­ford, who pro­vided ex­tremely helpful com­ments and in­for­ma­tion in the pro­cess of writ­ing this post.