I haven’t written a ton about animal rights/animal suffering because any position I have is guaranteed to get me yelled at by two sides, possibly more. I will only write things like that when I am absolutely certain of my grasp of the facts and the rigor of my thought process. That does not describe me and animal rights at all. My opinions on balancing animal rights with human needs/desires can best be described as “intuitions attempting to balance to several different gut feelings.” But that is hopefully about to change. John Salvatier, some other people, and I are going to dig in to Animal Charity Evaluators’s research on the best way to alleviate animal suffering. This doesn’t actually require me to investigate my beliefs about the health impact of eating animal products, but I probably will anyway. In the spirit of science and accountability, I’m going to share my starting beliefs (like I did with HAES), so you can see if research changed them.
A note on comments: this is a pretty scary thing to write, because I’ve seen so many personal attacks in animal rights threads in many different Effective Altruism forums. If you have a pointer to information I would benefit from, please send it along, I would really appreciate it. If you think my beliefs are immoral, please hold off commenting until the Post-Check, which will contain only opinions I am willing to defend. If you believe that there are no trade offs or your trade off is the only moral trade off, please go share this opinion with people who agree with you.
Okay, that said, here is my existing knowledge: I watched Earthling and Farm to Fridge with my EA group. John has already read a few studies and passed links and comments on to me, I skimmed some of the studies he linked to while I was tired. I have read a few EA facebook threads on animal rights that had minimal informational content, relative to the emotional vitriol. Without further adieu, here are my current opinions:
Animal death for the purpose of food is okay, animal suffering is not.
Everyone dies eventually. A good life and a clean death is more than animals get in the wild. Ecosystems without predators are very unhealthy for the remaining prey animals. So while unnecessary suffering bothers me a great deal, death seems not to. This is pretty close to my attitude with humans; I’m frequently angry at how the medical system focuses on postponing death rather than improving health/quality of life.
Modern factory farming produces unacceptable levels of suffering
Even if everything I saw in Farm To Fridge was outliers, the implied bell curve is unacceptable.
Animal death or suffering for the purpose of clothing is not okay
I didn’t so much reason this out as found myself in a shoe store trying to talk myself into leather being okay, and realized it would be much easier to just not buy leather. I am not entirely convinced I will stick to this if I find something amazing that can only be had in leather, but I am definitely willing to put a great deal of energy into finding vegan alternatives. This leads me to believe…
My position that animal death for the purpose of food is morally okay is dependent on my belief that eating animals is essential to human health
This is a weird position for me because I didn’t eat meat until I was 28, because I couldn’t digest it, which 4 year old me translated to “it’s gross”. I was the least bothered of anyone when we watched Earthling and Farm to Fridge, and I believe that’s in part because for everyone else they were learning something horrible about something they enjoyed. My thought process was more along the lines of “Of course meat is disgusting, but you have to grit through it for your health. Gastric acid pills will solve a lot of this problem.” My forebrain knows HCl does not actually have anything to do with pigs eating necrotic flesh off of other pigs, but the hindbrain worked so hard to overcome it’s visceral disgust that the new reason to find meat disgusting just bounced off.
I’m not claiming people will literally die without meat. I do think that the healthiest diets involve small amounts of meat, and any deviation from that platonic diet is a blow to your health. If you are otherwise healthy and health has thresholds, that blow may not make a perceptible different in your life. If you are me, it does. To the extent healthy vegan diets are possible, they will generally be some combination of less delicious, more expensive, or more work than the omnivore alternative.
This doesn’t mean meat is some sort of magic salve. My gut feeling is that a even really bad vegan diet is probably better for you than a really bad American-style meat-based diet, although this will depend somewhat on genetics.
Not all meats have equal moral density
I have almost-but-not-quite given up pig (which was the first meat I was able to stomach, because bacon) because pigs are smarter and I think that makes them more capable of suffering. Meanwhile crickets barely rank above plants (and may end up being more humane, depending on how many bugs and rodents die to produce those plants). All this is strictly from a suffering perspective: if you want to consider environmental impact things get even more complicated.
I prefer Mercy for Animals’s approach (lessening the amount of suffering in meat production) to The Humane League’s approach (convincing people to go veg*n)
Some of this is because I was coming at it from the framing of meat-offsets (donating to a charity to balance out meat consumption). Originally I framed it as “paying someone not to do something you just did is stupid”, like I do with carbon offsets. It also galls me that what you’re paying for is not making it easier for someone to veg*n, via cooking classes or covering the difference in cost, you’re paying to convince them that veg*nism is a good idea. Being inspired to convince people to do something by doing the exact opposite feels incredibly broken and toxic to me, but I could never articulate it more than that.
As I’m writing this I see that this is actually tied in with my justification that meat (or at least animal products) are necessary for health. “This is necessary for my health so I’ll pay someone else to sabotage their health” is sick and immoral. “This is necessary for my health but I’m going to work to make others suffer for it as little as possible” seems much more reasonable.
I do think that convincing people to eat much less animal protein is a good idea, and I’d support efforts to change norms around meat and lessen the cost/effort/taste differential between vegan and meat meals.
Also leafletting is dumb
Seriously, I just don’t see it helping. They say leafletting but according to John they actually mean canvassing with leaflets. My understanding from PIRG is that the vast majority of money raised by canvassers goes to paying the salaries of the canvassers.* Humane League isn’t trying to raise money, but “convincing people to do a lot of work to avoid something they see as a staple” seems like a strictly harder pitch than “give me $10 and I will go away.”
But if it’s going to work anywhere, it will be at colleges
College students are much more open to new ideas, and cafeterias lessen or even eliminate the work to avoid meat.
But I don’t think we’ll ever know the absolute effectiveness because it’s really hard to measure
Unless they’re actually following people (without telling them) and charting what they eat, how could they possibly know? And spying on people is expensive and possibly illegal.
Wait, I just thought of a way to measure it. College students (especially freshman, who are often segregated from other students) eat at college cafeterias. You could total measure consumption of meat vs. vegan items and see if it changes after leafletting.
*Whether or not particular canvassers are paid or are volunteers is mostly irrelevant, because their time still has value.