Food Choices at EA Global

[EAGlobal was a wonderful experience that I haven’t written much about because my brain was too stuffed full of wonderfulness to produce anything useful.  I dislike that the first thing I’m writing about it is a controversy/complaint]

There’s a utilitarian thought experiment: would you rather have one person tortured for their entire life, or a googolplex of people experience a single dust mote in their eye?  I always viewed it as too theoretical to be anything but an ideological purity test, but I think I’m seeing a version of it in action right now, in the debate around serving animal products at EA Global.

You have a small number of animal rights activists saying “this is torturing and consuming a sentient being and that’s morally abhorent”, and a much larger number of omnivores going “but seriously, they’re delicious”.  The ARAs don’t understand why aesthetic preferences are overriding morality (and either don’t believe that animal products are ever medically necessary or don’t believe that outweighs the cost to the animal), and the omnivores don’t see why such a small group is getting to override their preferences because of a principle they don’t believe in.

I think the moral weight of the ARA’s concerns may actually be working against them here.  I don’t think many people would object if the organizers said “the local cuisine is vegan and shipping in meat is just too expensive, bring some in your luggage if you must.”  But the fact that the morality arguments exist and tend to resonate with people even if they don’t agree makes people defensive, and then aggressive.  Allowing the organizers to drop meat for morality reasons is an implicit endorsement of the idea that meat is indeed immoral, which has unpleasant implications for omnivore’s moral standing the rest of the week.  By the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, better to deny that there is a problem than participate in an incomplete solution.

My original position, based mostly on the fact that I am simultaneously really bothered by and completely immune to ARA’s disgust-based arguments, was that EA Global had made the right call: vegan or at least vegetarian options in the main line, a small amount of meat hidden off to the side.  But now that I think the insistence on meat is strongly Copenhagen-driven, I’ve changed my mind.  Admitting unpleasant things about ourselves and making incremental progress is supposed to be one of our things.

[By that same token I think ARA’s should be a little happier about how much meat consumption was reduced that weekend, even if it didn’t go to zero.  But then, I’m an incrementalist]

At the same time, some people need animal products.  The definition of need is tricky here- my doctor has told me to eat small amounts of meat, but going three days without any will be fine, but in practice what was served at EA Global was too hard on my stomach and I wouldn’t have been able to eat enough calories from that alone.  Some people are on paleo and even if that wasn’t the healthiest choice, a sudden drop off in meat will be physically hard on them.  Some people have a lot of things they can’t eat such that meat is the easiest way to get them a nutritionally complete meal- especially when you have a lot of different people with a lot of different exclusions.  But even if meat were served, it’s impossible to fulfill 600 people’s dietary requirements with a reasonable amount of effort and money. The best solution may have been to announce the menu ahead of time so people could plan, and then let the chips fall where they may.

But I think we can do one better.  My new favorite solution is to offer both meat and whatever vegans nominate as the best fake meat and offer both without a way to distinguish between the two at the time.  Omnivores would be given one at random with a code that they could later use to register 1.  how much they liked what they were served and 2.  whether they think it was real meat or not.  If they really don’t like what they got they could go to a back room somewhere with their code and ask for the other one (still not telling them which they got).  The same back room could serve people who medically need meat and people who want the definitively vegan option.

This gives people who want but don’t need meat (and are able to eat !meat) a way to get it, and vegans a way to advance the cause of veganism, possibly further than they would get by banning it (by showing people how good !meat tastes).  In most circles neither side would find this adequate, but Experimenting and Using Data are What Effective Altruists  Do, and I think that could convince/pressure enough people (on both sides) into it that it would be worth trying.

One thought on “Food Choices at EA Global”

  1. Hi, I just discovered this blog today. Very much enjoying it and looking forward to reading more.

    Full disclosure: I’m not part of the effective altruism community or anything like that, and am not intimately familiar with it. I apologize in advance for nitpicking at a detail that I realize is not the point of the post. But it’s something I feel strongly about and think is important, and also that I can’t count on anyone else, necessarily, to bring up.

    So at the risk of not quickly making a lot of new friends…

    I object to the notion that killing animals for food is this big horrible moral crime but that doing the same thing to plants is okay or at least permissible.

    While our conventional notions of pain and suffering are based on what we know from having a central nervous system, pain and suffering are phenomena, not observable characteristics. It’s like software sitting on top of hardware. You can’t look into my skull and see the pain and suffering happening. At best you can map what parts of my central nervous system are supporting it, but that’s it.

    Plants don’t have central nervous systems, but they do have sensory organs–often rather sophisticated ones. It is by no means certain that they don’t also have the phenomena of pain and suffering sitting on top of their “hardware”.

    If vegan EAs (or whomever lodged the complaint you mentioned) have an arbitrary loyalty to organisms with central nervous systems, that’s fine, but they should be up front about it and also acknowledge its arbitrariness, if not defend it. I’ve never seen a vegan do this, though, and so instead I think they’re either arguing from a place of ignorance of they’re being disingenuous, maybe because they like the attention they get from being vegans, or they like the feeling of moral superiority it gives them, or they simply like having these kinds of arguments.

    (Also, as I said, I’m not deeply familiar with EA, but it seems kind of hard to square with arbitrary loyalties.)

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