Transitioning Away From Veganism| 1034 words
About 6 months ago, I decided that in 2022 I would transition away from being strictly vegan into a flexible form of vegetarianism (where I put reasonable effort towards avoiding eggs and purchasing ethical egg offsets.) The reason there is a 6 month gap in the decision is because I was trying to “decide for someone else” so I would not be swayed by various cognitive biases. There’s some question of why I’m becoming vegetarian instead of just resuming a normal diet, to which the answer is “do small things before big things” or “I’ll think transitioning to a normal diet later.”
This was a pretty personal decision, so don’t take the following reasoning as arguing for or against other people becoming vegan in general. Rather, think of it like arguing “people like Mark” should be vegetarian instead of vegan.
The main argument for going through with it is consequentialism: turns out that not eating animal products is not a very effective way of reducing animal suffering for any of the inputs, e.g. dollars or attention. Below I will explain why I am no longer compelled by the arguments that caused me to initially transition. I take for granted that animal suffering is bad and that veganism reduces animal suffering more than vegetarianism, being mostly interested in ethical considerations rather than empirical ones.
Veganism reduces animal suffering
The argument: “Not eating animal products reduces marginal demand, which reduces marginal supply, which reduces marginal production, which reduces suffering.”
Since we’re comparing to vegetarianism, the relevant factors are the amount of suffering that is reduced if you don’t consume milk and eggs and the amount of milk and eggs I would consume if I wasn’t vegan. http://ethical.diet/ contains estimates that answer the former question.
The answer to the second question is probably “not much”. I’m lactose intolerant, so I wouldn’t really be consuming more than a cup of milk per day. I intend to try to avoid eggs (or buy ethical egg offsets) and expect to consume less than 10% of the eggs of the average American (which a quick google search says is 279, 10% of which is 28).
The main problem is that this particular argument is not very cruxy for me. It feels pretty clear that a much better way to reduce animal suffering is to donate money to highly effective charities. I find the argument that you can do both uncompelling because there are many actions that would net-decrease suffering that I’m not taking because they’re costly in terms of time and attention.
The argument: “When choosing your diet, it would be optimal to evaluate the marginal suffering required to produce all food and minimize that. However, this is intractable. In practice, we need policies that tend to generate correct decisions. Veganism is a good heuristic that tends to generate ethical consumption decisions.”
I’m not compelled by this argument because I currently believe that the best heuristic/diet of this form is actually “everything but eggs (and maybe chicken meat).” You can arrive at this diet by thinking of all the things that people eat that cause suffering, and picking the thing with the highest suffering/calorie ratio.
The argument: “Farmed animals are very inefficient in terms of calories/CO2-equivalent-gasses released. Consuming a plant-based diet is better for the environment.”
I mostly think this argument turns out to be ridiculously weak when you check the numbers. People are mostly thinking of eliminating red meat for these reasons, but a single American doesn’t really eat enough red meat to have a large impact on climate change.
(Fun fact: I used to say “environmental reasons” when people asked me why I was vegan/vegetarian because I wanted to avoid awkward conversations.)
The most plausible argument in this cluster is the x-risk angle on climate change being much more important than animal suffering. I don’t think this goes through because I don’t think climate change is that big of an existential risk (the best reference for this argument is probably Toby Ord’s The Precipice).
The argument: “There are parts of you that think directly interacting with a system that produces harm is more morally bad than indirect interaction. Being vegan is one of the deontological constraints that various parts of you want to obey.”
This cluster of arguments probably gives me the largest pause, but end up not really being convincing. One reason is that, assuming I care about animal suffering, to the extent that I sort of care about the act-omission distinction, the amount of suffering caused by eating something that contains eggs or milk is actually pretty far removed from the suffering it causes. This suggests that there are other, more direct, ways to alleviate suffering that are “better” at satisfying those parts. For instance, I don’t find myself that concerned with unethical manufacturing processes or wild animal welfare.
However, ultimately the main reason why this argument doesn’t convince me is that I don’t find myself moved by it (a bit circular, I know). It’s a bit like saying “you’re uncertain about the world, so you should insure yourself against X,” to which the response is always going to be “well, I don’t feel like my uncertainty implies that I should insure myself against X.”
The argument: “Being vegan is a good way to signal that you’re not a generic silicon valley elite effective altruist type, whose only concerned with AI because you’re into tech or whatever.” (I acknowledge that my paraphrasing of this argument leaves something to be desired)
On a high level, I think this argument is uncompelling because people having opinions about me shouldn’t really be able to change my behavior (once you’ve screened off the reasons they have those opinions). Anna Salamon gives an explanation I like in her post “PR” Is Corrosive; “reputation” is not.
More specifically, there are many other things that make you seem less like a “silicon valley elite”: being vegetarian, volunteering at soup kitchens, donating money to homeless people, not living in silicon valley, etc. The argument seems to suggest that veganism is the best of these trades, which seems pretty dubious to me.