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Meat at EA Global

August 10th, 2015
food, giving, veg  [html]
Last weekend I was at EA Global, a conference for effective altruists. The people at the conference support a mix of cause areas, but many EAs think animals matter a lot more than people typically think they do. These EAs naturally think eating animals is really bad, and they would like to see a vegan or at least vegetarian conference.

In preparing for this year's conference the animal activist strand of EA had been told that it would be all-vegan, but a few days before they were told that actually some animal products would be served, including meat. (Last-minute change isn't great, but it's also extremely difficult to run a large conference and I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the organizers.) Conference attendees who went through the normal food lines each day were offered mostly vegan food, and no food containing meat. For people who really wanted meat with their meal there was a separate area where they could take some.

I felt like this arrangement offered a good balance, with the conference organizers clearly indicating respect for animal-focused EAs, but I'm not an animal-focused EA and over the past week there have been several posts from people unhappy with this setup. Kelsey at The Unit of Caring wrote a good argument for EA events not serving meat, based around three main principles:


[Act with] respect for the preferences of people you don't share, even the principles you actively disagree with, and commitment to creating spaces where engagement can happen between people with profound disagreements


It is bad to have norms that let whoever gets the angriest win. It is good to have norms that respect people with deeply felt preferences. That means we have to measure the strength of peoples' preferences by something other than how outraged they get. Also, even strong preferences don't automatically win.

official sanction

Would it be okay if EA opened with optional calling the cops on homeless people in which the cops were called on only, like, two particularly smelly homeless people? There's a time for "everyone should do what feels right to them and everyone else should let them be" and a time for "some people will reasonably be alienated if certain behavior is officially sanctioned at all." This is why I take issue with "well, as long as there wasn't meat in every dish, who cares that the conference served some meat?"

It's a lot easier to discuss cause prioritization with people who are willing to meet you halfway. And "you can do that thing I think is wrong, but don't ask EAG for official support and money for it" is a good halfway point to meet at.

The thing is, I actually think the approach the conference organizers took does well from this perspective. Say EAs in 1915 are meeting for their annual conference. Among the cause areas represented is temperance activism. Supporters believe alcohol consumption is harmful for society and are trying to get it banned. Many other attendees think alcohol is fine and in fact on balance makes lives better. The conference is the sort of event that would typically serve alcohol. What should the organizers do?

  1. Go ahead and serve alcohol as normal; teetotalers don't have to drink.
  2. Require people who really want alcohol to go to another serving area to get it.
  3. Hold a completely dry event, people can BYOB
  4. Hold a completely dry event, don't allow alcohol in.

I think option (2) is a good compromise position, where the conference organizers indicate respect and inclusion of the temperance activists by making their preferences the default without indicating that this is an issue where EA has come to a hard conclusion to be enforced.

(A little background: I sympathize strongly with temperance activists, don't drink, and wish others wouldn't drink. I'm am unhappy with my money going to fund alcohol, though I think the views of animal activists and 100-years-ago temperance activists on funding and official support are much stronger here.)

Expanded from a comment in this thread.

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