[Content warnings: scrupulosity; assumes the reader is an effective altruist and broadly on board with measuring the value of human lives in money.]
A lot of arguments that vegetarianism is not effective altruism– for instance, this essay by Katja Grace– use the current cost of saving a life according to GiveWell as the approximate value of a human life. [ETA: see Katja’s comment, that is not precisely what her essay is doing.] This would be sensible if charitable donations were an efficient market, in which people arbitraged lives: if there were an opportunity to save lives for much less than the value of human lives, then people would do that, and then we could expect that the cheapest one can save a life for is approximately the value of a human life.
However, one of the key facts leading one to effective altruism is that human lives are not arbitraged; because people have certain biases– we favor people in our own country, we don’t intuitively understand the difference between 10,000 and 100,000– it is possible to get tremendous steals on saving lives.
The value of a human life according to the US government is somewhere between six million dollars and nine million dollars. Take the middle number and call it seven and a half million dollars. With that calculation, the ethical cost of a chicken meal turns out not to be equivalent to the $5.50 Katja calculates but a mind-boggling $3669.
Of course, that assumes that chickens have equal moral weight to humans. I don’t think they do. But assuming that chickens are worth half as much as a human are, it still works out that the average chicken meal causes almost $2000 of damage.
(Some people are going to read this and be like “wait, that means that every time I pay for a Netflix subscription instead of donating to GiveWell I am complicit in thousands of dollars’ worth of harm.” And, well, yeah. Are you new?)
The second argument I see a lot of non-vegetarian effective altruists using against becoming vegetarian is that it trades off against donating more. This is a pretty common argument whenever anyone brings up a form of altruism unrelated to direct work or earning to give: should we really be protesting, or donating kidneys, or boycotting Nestle, or eating vegetarian, or not driving, if it reduces our effectiveness in direct work or earning to give?
Now, there are two groups of people this does not apply to. First, some effective altruists like Jeff Kaufman decide how much good they’re going to do in approximate dollar values. When an opportunity comes for a high-cost opportunity for doing good, such as becoming vegetarian, they measure the cost in dollars and then don’t donate an equivalent amount of money. Second, some effective altruists do “morality offsets”– every time they eat meat, they donate five dollars more to the Against Malaria Foundation than they otherwise would. Both of those are perfectly reasonable behavior and my blog post does not apply to people doing them.
However, I think for most effective altruists this is a terrible model for understanding how to do the most good.
First, adding a new form of altruism might make it easier to do direct work or earning to give. Vegetarianism is, for most people, a lot cheaper than eating meat, simply because eating meat costs more. If you go vegetarian, you free up money that you can spend on donating. Another place this argument applies is conserving resources and general environmentalism: reducing the amount you fly or using energy-efficient appliances is good for the earth, but it also saves money, making it easier to donate more. (These two examples suggest a general heuristic– when looking for money-saving ideas, favor ones that are also more ethical.)
Second, this model assumes that humans have a single limiting factor on how much good they do. However, in many cases, the limiting factor on one’s donations or career success is completely unrelated to limiting factors on one’s ability to be vegetarian.
For instance, imagine Alice. Alice has a salaried job; if she worked additional hours, she would not earn more money. She has calculated that, above fifty hours a week of work and study, the marginal effect of additional time on her career success is essentially zero. While she could theoretically get a part-time job or work on Mechanical Turk, that would be sufficiently dispiriting that it would burn her out. She is also donating income at a percentage above which she would burn out.
Now, Alice is considering going vegetarian, or attending her local #BlackLivesMatter protest, or selling her car and taking CalTrain to work. While all of these have costs, they probably aren’t coming out of the time Alice is spending on her career. They’re coming out of (respectively) the diversity of food with which Alice tantalizes her tastebuds, Alice’s ability to sit in her underwear on Saturday and watch cartoons, and Alice not having to check the schedule to make sure she doesn’t miss her train. None of those decisions are likely to have any effect on how much Alice donates.
In my own case, I’ve been everything from vegan to pescatarian. I did not donate more when I was eating fish; if anything, the correlation went the other direction. Instead, my donations were mostly affected by whether or not I have a job– a constraint nearly entirely unrelated to my dietary habits. And my quality of life as a pescatarian was not particularly higher than my quality of life as a lacto vegetarian. (Vegan is hard. Cheese!)
Basically, my argument is this: the marginal cost of Alice becoming vegetarian is much much lower than the marginal cost of Alice donating more money. Therefore, if Alice wishes to do more good in the world, she should become vegetarian– regardless of whether donating more money is more effective.
Obviously, not everyone’s costs of becoming vegetarian are as low as Alice’s. Some people have health problems if they don’t eat meat. Some people have eating disorders that are triggered by any sort of restrictive diet. Some people have diets restricted in other ways, and not eating meat would cause them to miss out on important nutrients. Some people live in food deserts and take what they can get. Some people are completely disgusted by vegetables and trying to become vegetarian would mean they would live entirely on bread. All of those are perfectly reasonable quality of life reasons not to become vegetarian– and (for that matter) all of them seem likely to interfere with how much someone can donate.
However, for a lot of people, vegetarianism does not interfere with other forms of altruism. I encourage meat-eating effective altruists who read this to consider whether they can reduce their meat consumption in relatively low-cost ways. Can you learn to cook a handful more vegetarian meals? Try Meatless Monday or vegan before 6? Stop eating chicken? Drink more Soylet (or MealSquares, if they come out with a vegan version, HINT HINT)? Obviously, if reducing your animal product consumption affects your career or your quality of life, you should scale it back. But I suspect a lot of people will find that reducing their consumption of animal products is a lot easier and lower-cost than they think it is.