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Applying the 'Best Tradeoff' Argument Generally

May 18th, 2015
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An idea that often comes up in effective altruism is that you're not just trying to do things with positive consequences, you want to do the things that will have the most positive consequences overall. For example, in When should an effective altruist be vegetarian? Katja Grace writes that yes, going vegetarian would decrease animal suffering, but "the real question is not whether the cost to you is small, but whether you could do more good for the same small cost."

This argument gets brought up a lot in the context of people deciding whether to be vegetarian or vegan, enough that Michael Dickens points out that "the way people apply this argument to veganism but not to anything else looks suspiciously like motivated reasoning." I think effective altruists do and should apply this argument generally, and I try to in my life, so here's a list of some things I don't think are worth it:

  • Taking cold showers
  • Donating a kidney to a stranger
  • Keeping the heat really low in winter, avoiding fans/AC in summer
  • Buying fair trade
  • Refusing to use the dryer
  • Paying more for 'green' electricity

These are some cases where I agree that my actions cause harm to others, but I keep doing them because the cost to myself of doing something else is relatively large, and so I choose other places to change my behavior where there's a better benefit to cost ratio. As you have different experiences, for example maybe not minding cold showers, then some things that are not worth it for me could be worth it for you and vice versa.

I think the main reason this comes up so much with veganism and vegetarianism is that animal advocates often present "eating animal products causes harm" as if that's enough on its own, when the scale of the harm matters a lot.

(I've written similar things before: personal consumption changes as charity, prioritizing by happiness.)

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