Tag Archives: ethics

Want to Summon Less Animal Suffering?

I've been thinking about Julia Galef's chart of how much of an animal's live an unit of food costs. Her summary of her approach:

If you’re bothered by the idea of killing animals for food, then going vegetarian might seem like an obvious response. But if you want your diet to kill as few animals as possible, then eschewing meat is actually quite an indirect, and sometimes even counterproductive, strategy. The question you should be asking yourself about any given food is not, “Is this food animal flesh?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “How many animal lives did this food cost?”

She ends up with this chart:

But as we know, from a hedonic utilitarian perspective, the moral cost of consuming animals is not measured in their deaths, but the net suffering in their lives - and lives are made of days.

I am not a hedonic utilitarian, but I think that for big-picture issues, utilitarianism is an important heuristic for figuring out what the right answer is, since at least it handles addition and multiplication better than our unaided moral intuitions.

So I looked up how long each of these animals typically lives, to estimate how many days of each animal's life you are responsible for when you consume 1,000 calories of that animal. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that beef cattle are slaughtered at 36 months old (i.e. 1,096 days), and pork hogs at 6 months old (183 days). Wikipedia says that chickens raised for meat typically live about 6 weeks (42 days), and laying hens about 2 years (730 days), and that dairy cows live an average of four years (1,461 days) before dying or being culled and sold as beef.

Using those figures yields the following:

Days per 1000 Calories


Eggs now appear to be even worse than eating chicken flesh, since broiler chickens live very short lives compared to laying hens. Similarly, beef loses its advantage relative to pork, which comes from smaller but faster-maturing animals. Dairy still seems pretty okay, comparatively.

A few complicating factors need to be explored before this becomes a reliable guide, though.

First, not all animal suffering is of equal intensity. It may actually be net good for well-treated animals to exist. It is still not obvious that factory farmed animals would rather never have been born, or how to count their suffering.

Second, it is not obvious how to attribute responsibility for animals that are not themselves raised to feed humans. For example, Julia divided laying hens' yield in half to account for killed male chicks, but the chicks obviously live almost no time. If you double the yield back to what it would have been before this adjustment, eggs come out about the same as chicken. Similarly, if a dairy cow is killed for beef, it seems like this should lower milk drinkers' and cheese eaters' day counts, since beef eaters contribute to the viability of raising dairy cattle too.

Finally, there may be different elasticity for different animal products; because lowered demand leads to lowered prices, which increase demand, the industry might reduce production by less than a full chicken for each chicken you abstain from buying, and this rate may differ by animal.

What am I going to do? I like eggs a lot, and think they're cheap and pretty good for me, and I basically believe Katja Grace's argument that I shouldn't put in a lot of work to change my behavior on this, so I'm going to keep eating them, though I'll continue to preferentially buy free range eggs where available. I have a rationalization that laying hens don't suffer nearly as much as broilers, so I'll flinch a little bit each time I consider eating chicken. I was favoring eating beef over pork due to Julia's analysis, but I will stop doing that now that I know the two are pretty much equivalent in terms of animal-days.

[UPDATE: Brian Tomasik has an unsurprisingly somewhat more thoroughly worked out treatment of this line of thinking here.]

Whatever Is Not Best Is Forbidden

At this year's CFAR Alumni Reunion, Leah Libresco hosted a series of short talks on Effective Altruism. She now has a post up on an issue Anna Salamon brought up, the disorienting nature of some EA ideas:

For some people, getting involved in effective altruism is morally disorienting — once you start translating the objects and purchases around you into bednets, should you really have any of them? Should you skip a gruel diet so you can keep your strength up, work as an I-banker, and “earn to give” — funneling your salary into good causes? Ruminating on these questions can lead to analysis paralysis — plus a hefty serving of guilt.

In the midst of our discussion, I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why. In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, he lays out a kind of factor analysis of what drives people’s moral intuitions. In his research, some moral foundations (e.g. care/harm) are pretty common to everyone, but some (sanctity/degradation or “purity”) are more predictive in some groups than others.

My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date. You can be inoculated against moral culture shock by previous exposure to other purity-flavored kinds of reasoning (deontology, religion, etc), but, if not (and maybe if you’re also predisposed to anxiety), the sudden clarity about a bestmode of action, that is both very important, and very unlikely for you pull off everyday may trigger scrupulosity.

EAs sometimes seem to think of the merit of an action as a binary quality, where either it is obligatory because it has the "bestness" attribute and outweighs the opportunity cost, or it is forbidden because it doesn't. You're allowed to take care of yourself, and do the best known thing given imperfect information, but only if it's "best.” This framing is exhausting and paralyzing because you're never doing anything positively good, everything is either obligatory or forbidden.

It doesn't have to be that way; we can distinguish between intrapersonal and interpersonal opportunity cost.

I'm not a public utility, I'm a person. If I help others in an inefficient way, or with less of my resources than I could have employed, then I've helped others. If last year I gave to a very efficient charity, but this year I switched to a less efficient charity, then I helped others last year, and helped others again this year. Those are things to celebrate.

But if I pressure or convince someone else to divert their giving from a more efficient to a less efficient charity, or support a cause that itself diverts resources from more efficient causes, then I have actually harmed others on net.

Cross-posted at the Effective Altruism Society of DC bloc.